It’s developmentally appropriate for very young children to have meltdowns when frustrated. It’s also developmentally appropriate for older children with developmental delays and other issues.
That’s because these children haven’t yet developed strong self-regulation skills.
When they’re frustrated or upset or overstimulated, their emotions overwhelm them. They crumple into a ball on the floor, wailing and even lashing out with their fists if someone takes their arm and tries to pull them up. Or, they lower themselves to the ground and lie flat on their back. If someone tries to pull them up, their quiet little shutdown turns into a full-fledged meltdown.
Do these scenarios sound familiar?
It can be easier to avoid meltdowns if you remember the words of psychologist Dr. Ross Greene, who teaches parents how to support their children in learning self-regulation skills: Kids do well if they can.
When your child is in meltdown mode, she can’t do well. She can’t “pull it together,” “suck it up,” or “stop already.” She and her anger, frustration, sadness, discomfort, and overstimulated are one. There’s no part of her thinking, “Oh, look at me, falling apart and melting down because I had to turn off Frozen and come to the dinner table. Isn’t that interesting?”
As you try to imagine a similar scene in your household with your child with sensory issues when she melts down, think about what part of “do well” your child couldn’t pull off. What did you expect her to do that she couldn’t do?
Did you expect her to transition quickly from an activity she was deeply engaged in? Kids with sensory processing issues often have great difficulty shifting their focus and changing their activities.
Transitions are tough. Was this one too fast for your child?
If she sometimes can transition quickly without melting down, the challenge is to figure out why some transitions are easy for her and some are hard. Are transitions especially tough when she’s hungry, tired, or stressed out after a long day?
Start by assuming your child wants to cooperate. Maybe recognizes that if she gets up and goes to eat dinner, it will quiet her growling, hungry stomach. Maybe she’s hungry but doesn’t want to pull herself away from the fun activity. Yet she wants to receive positive reinforcement—perhaps a smile and words of praise.
If you’ve seen your child cry and say, “I’m sorry” after you pointed out that she didn't do as you asked, chances are she really does want to cooperate. She just has trouble doing it.
Remember, kids do well if they can.
Kids with sensory issues often take longer to develop self-regulation when it comes to mood, focus, and activity level. Transitions are harder for them because they just get used to an activity and all it involves sensory wise and then—boom! They have to shift. They have to deal with the strong smells of food on the table. They have to sit in an upright chair they can’t feel well under their bottom, making it hard not to fall off. They have to judge where their cup of water is in relationship to the edge of the table so it doesn’t fall off, which can be difficult for a child with visual processing differences. Eating according to the rules can be challenging, and here she was just relaxed and happy in front of a movie she’s seen many times that gives her a sense of predictability and control: She knows just when to start singing, “Do you want to build a snowman?” Where to put the cup so it doesn’t spill or fall? Not so easy.
Try to figure out why your child can’t do well, or finds it difficult to do well, when it comes to doing what you ask. Doing so can help you avoid meltdowns. You can learn to better appreciate how hard it is for your child to “do well” even if she can—because you’ll start to recognize that she’s still developing her self-regulation skills and needs more practice.
Where is your child when it comes to controlling her emotions, focus, and activity level? Perhaps she cries or gets angry easily. Maybe she has trouble staying focused (particularly when her senses are challenged). Maybe it’s hard for her to sit still when her body needs to move or sitting up straight when her body is telling her to sit on the couch upside down bouncing her foot.
Being more understanding of what’s difficult for our children helps us to meet them where they are so we can get them where we want them to go.
Knowing your child has difficulty with transitions or sitting at a dinner table can help you start thinking about accommodations that will work for her. Then, the meltdowns will be less frequent. Your child will do better because she can.
What’s more, your discipline—your teaching—will be more effective because you’re being realistic about where she is developmentally.
Meet her where she is, give her some warnings about a transition she’ll have to make, and accommodate her sensory needs at the dinner table, and you’ll make it easier for her to do well, meeting your expectations for how she is supposed to behave.
And as you get to better understand where your child is at developmentally, and what she can and can’t do with a little effort, you will be better at accommodating her yet helping her develop better self-regulation skills at the same time. Meltdowns will be more rare and even, thank goodness, less intense.
Want to learn more about discipline and your child with sensory issues? Check out the newly revised and updated edition of the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues in which self-regulation is covered along with meltdowns and discipline. Let Raising a Sensory Smart Child help you discover how you can become a sensory smart parent.