Just a Mother Sharing How Autism & Mental Illness has Imapcted our Family

The Anatomy of a Meltdown & How to Handle Them



“There are some things I can’t control, & that’s just the way it is.”
~Susane Colasanti

When I was a kid  I used to watch a cartoon called Bugs Bunny and there was a character on there called the Tasmanian Devil. Many of you know the cartoon character I’m speaking of.  He was the ferocious, crazed, wild eyed, short tempered beast with little patience who had the ability to create a vortex with his own body.  He is often the character that comes to mind when my son is in the middle of a meltdown, only I don’t find my son’s actions to be as  amusing as  those of the cartoon character (at least not during a meltdown that is).

Meltdown… the word every parent with a special needs child fears.  It’s difficult to imagine anything more stressful, painful, frightening, confusing, or depressive as witnessing and helping your child through a meltdown. They can be triggered by something as paltry  as being told they cannot have a doughnut and can last anywhere from thirty minutes to six hours. Children experiencing a meltdown have little or no control over their actions.

Meltdown or Tantrum There is a difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. Tantrums are a pretty straightforward occurrence that happens when a child is not getting their way. Tantrums can be challenging and stressful as well, but there are some pretty distinguishing differences between a meltdown and a tantrum. 

The Tantrum:

  • When a child has a tantrum they will often look to see if anyone is paying attention and if they’re getting the reaction they seek from whoever their behavior is being displayed for.
  • Most times, (not always), the child having a tantrum is  careful to not obtain an injury during the middle of their fit.
  • A child who throws a tantrum will attempt to use the situation to his or her benefit (especially if your’re in a public setting).
  • As soon as your child gets his way during a tantrum, or realizes their antics just aren’t working, the tantrum will spontaneously resolve itself as quickly as it evolved.
  • Most  tantrums are your child’s way of exerting some form of control over you or the situation.  They can also be a way of punishing you for not not bending to their will.
  • Tantrums in children usually subside as they grow older or at the very least they happen less frequently.
  • In essence, tantrums are the ultimate form of manipulation for children and the desired outcome is to get their own way.

The Meltdown:

  • Children with Autism or mental illness couldn’t care less about whose looking during a meltdown, nor do they care if they’re garnering a positive or negative reaction from those around them.
  • Children in the midst of a meltdown do not consider whether or not harm or injury is going to come to them as a result of their extreme behavior.  Sometimes these meltdowns do result in injury to the child or those who are present during the meltdown.
  • Children having tantrums can usually be soothed and talked down, whereas a child having a meltdown cannot. I have found with my own child the more I try to calm him the more enraged he becomes.
  • When a child has a meltdown it is as though a switch has flipped in their brain.  They are no longer in control of themselves or their thoughts.  The child you know and love has temporarily disappeared and a violent out of control version is in their place.
  • Children having meltdowns do not care about the social circumstances.  They are not concerned about where they are or who is watching as the behavior cycles further and further out of control.
  • A meltdown usually occurs because the child feels a lack of control, an inability to verbalize their needs, overwhelming anxiety brought on by their surroundings, a perceived injustice, or much like the tantrum, an inability to get their own way.
  • Meltdowns can last upwards of six hours or more. I have had to take my son to the emergency room on numerous occasions because he couldn’t calm himself down and was becoming a danger to himself or others.
  • Meltdowns are NOT a form of manipulation, but instead an inability for the child to establish self-control under what they deem as stressful or (in my child’s case), frightening circumstances.

My son’s meltdowns can border on the extreme as do many other people’s children.  During a meltdown in the car one day my son tried to strangle me while I was driving on the freeway (one reason why he is no longer allowed to sit behind me when we travel anywhere). He has threatened his sister and myself with knives,  and once with a box cutter.  He has grabbed the steering wheel and tried to crash us into oncoming traffic. He has  threatened and tried to hurl himself from a moving vehicle. He has thrown and or tried to break anything not strapped down in our home.  He has kicked both myself and my husband. He has punched us, bitten us, screamed that we were hurting and or abusing him when we tried to restrain him for his own safety during a meltdown.  The latter resulted in the police being called by a neighbor thinking we were beating our son. Fortunately for us,  the police were well aware of our circumstances and knew we were not the evil abusers my son was making us out to be.  During meltdowns my son and other children can say some of the most belittling, hurtful, and hateful statements. I often say living with a child who has rages and meltdowns is comparative to living with an extremely abusive spouse.  The only difference is, you can get rid of the spouse, you can’t get rid of your child. nor would I want to in spite of the difficult position we are often in. He is my child and I love him without conditions.

So what can you do to keep your child, yourself, and others safe during meltdowns?  Below are some of the tools we use in our own home that have been given to us by in-home care staff or we read about.

  • First and foremost, try to remain calm.  I know that is so much easier said than done, but if you are as enraged as your child or take their behavior personally, it can only end badly.
  • If your child has meltdowns often and threatens you or others with knives, remove them or have them locked away.  We no longer keep sharp objects in or home or we keep the ones we need locked up. It isn’t just for your safety, but the safety of your child.
  • Try and prepare your child in advance for any changes in their schedule. Children with mental health concerns or who have Autism do best with a structured routine and anything that throws their schedule off can lead to a potential meltdown.
  • Create a safe space in your home where your child can go when having a meltdown. Stay close by to ensure that your child doesn’t hurt themselves. If you can’t get them to a safe room be sure wherever they are at, they won’t be able to endanger themselves or others.
  • If your child’s behavior is so out of control that they become a danger to themselves and others which causes you to call the police ask to have a CIT officer come to your home.  CIT  stands for Crisis Intervention Training and these officers are more likely to handle the situation responsibly and with compassion.  If you don’t have one of these officers in your area make sure the 911 operator knows your child has mental health challenges so the officer does as well.
  • Try and have a plan in place prior to meltdowns.
  • When your child is calm have he or she make a list of soothing options.  When you feel your child may be at the beginning of a meltdown try and have your child implement their soothing options before it becomes full blown. Once the meltdown spirals out of control soothing options no longer work.
  • Pick your battles.
  •  When your child is able to use soothing options and head off a meltdown be sure to acknowledge that with positive reinforcements.

Living with a child who can turn into the Tasmanian Devil on a dime,  can be challenging and stressful.  Make sure that while you’re taking care of your child you’re  also taking care of yourself.  Your health and well-being are just as important as your child’s.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” 
~Maya Angelou

Author: angeliamarie44

This blog was created to share our experiences and the impact of mental illness and Autism. I believe in the importance of erasing the stigma of mental illness and for that to happen, families such as mine need to speak out, advocate, and provide the real story of what we endure daily. That includes, the struggles and the successes of our daily life and interactions with the health care system, schools, police, and society in general. Mental illness, just like cancer, diabetes, or even the flu is a medical illness and it's past time that we treat it as such. I feel our societies failure to provide treatment and support services for mentally ill individuals and denying hospital care to the mentally ill is setting a separate and unequal standard in our country that the mentally ill are somehow less deserving of medical care and being treated with the same dignity and quality care that any other person facing a medical crisis has the right too. They too have a right to a successful life free from pain and without proper care and understanding their illness could have life threatening consequences. As a mother with a child who has struggled for years with mental illness and Autism, I feel it is my path in life to raise awareness so that we might create the much needed change in this country and end the discrimination facing the millions of mentally ill. "Mental illness is an equal-opportunity illness. Every one of us is impacted by mental illness. One in five adults are dealing with this illness, and many are not seeking help because the stigma prevents that." ~Margaret Larson

9 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Meltdown & How to Handle Them

  1. Hi Angela.

    Thanks for coming across to my blog. I feel for you and your son. I’m not aggressive to anyone but are a danger to myself when things crumble around me.
    Like your son, change is something that can make me uneasy. I need to be left alone to calm myself and try to slowly rationalise what’s going on. As a teenager I tried to jump from a truck. The driver came off the road, but got me. It was so traumatic for him that he left truck driving. He was a family friend. At 45 it still haunts me. As we get older we learn to balance things better. The constant love and support of our family is vital in surving.
    Your son knows deep down just how much he loves you and needs you, even during rages. Again I’m not aggressive but I know what he’s feeling. Outside when I’m a mess crying and wanting to die? On the inside I’m screaming for someone to save me. I push everyone away and withdrawl, its very hard to explain. Just know you are his one constant. You don’t mean to hurt the one you love, but at the end of the day he knows you will always be there. Stay strong, your a wonderful mother and he knows. Using my phone so hope word correction doesnt change my words. Lol it drives me batty. Lol
    Hugs Paula xxxx

    • Thank you…I find your blog to be an honest look as to what someone such as yourself is going through dealing with such a difficult diagnosis. It helps to give me better insight into what my own child may be feeling from time to time. It also gives me ideas on how I can better handle some of the challenges he experiences. I truly appreciate your being able to share with others such personal feelings & experiences. Hugs, Angela

  2. So nice to know that I am not the only one with a son who enters thermonulear melt down and has to try and deal with the aftermath and affects not only on him but myself and my daughter as well. I’m excited to continue reading! it’s like reading a page from my own life. Hang in there, for all the challenges you face those moments of clarity make it all worth it.

    • It’s interesting when my son has a meltdown. I don’t know if you experience this, but when our son melts down afterwards he acts as though nothing ever happened. I feel that’s one of our hugest challenges because after we’ve spent over an hour getting him to calm down we need a break, a little space to regroup. My son though, wants to play and talk with us as though the previous hour of screaming never occurred. It is a comforting feeling knowing as parents of a special needs child there are others out there facing the same challenges. And your right, in the end, it’s all worth it. =D

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