Let’s just tell it like it is: caring for your child during a public meltdown is tough. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding experience. So how do you cope?

Of course, prevention is preferable whenever possible. If you can head off a potential meltdown by using adaptive equipment or relocating to a quieter space, great! That’s the best-case scenario. But it doesn’t always happen.

The truth is, meltdowns happen to even the best of kids with even the best of parents. So don’t beat yourself up or think that you’ve failed. Ultimately, you can’t control another person’s responses.

However, you can prepare for the possibility of meltdowns and equip yourself to respond appropriately when they do happen.

Tantrums versus meltdowns

Before we dive into practical management tips, let’s clarify the difference between tantrum behavior and meltdown behavior.

A tantrum is about the child getting his or her own way. It’s an attempt to convince you to give in to their wishes. It’s an attention-seeking behavior.

For example, say you’re out shopping at Target and your child is calm and carefree right up until the very moment that you decline her request for candy. If your “No” effectively transforms your happy child into a screaming child, then you’re likely dealing with a tantrum.

(You’d know for sure if she calmed down the moment you conceded and said yes to the candy, but you don’t want to do that!)

By contrast, a meltdown is about a loss of control. It may be triggered by sensory overload, stress, or a series of smaller trigger moments of frustration throughout the day. During the episode, child is turned inward, trying to cope with intense feelings of overwhelm. It’s self-focused, not other-focused.

Say you’re at Target once again, but this time, your child is agitated and pacing from the moment you walk into the store. You needed to disrupt the usual after-school routine to pick up a few emergency items, and your child tensed his shoulders and bit his lips when you explained the change. He said nothing, but you could feel his frustration.

Plus, when you walked through the store’s doors he put his hands over his ears and fixed his gaze on the floor. Both behaviors are telltale signs that the store’s noise and fluorescent lights were too much for him to handle comfortably. And then to top it all off, you see a man in a Halloween clown costume rapidly approaching your aisle … and your child is deathly afraid of clowns.

If your child starts screaming and thrashing after all that, then you can be fairly certain that you have a meltdown on your hands. That hypothetical scenario includes a change in schedule, an experience of sensory overload, and a fear-based trigger too.

So, while the child’s external behavior (screaming and thrashing) is similar in the two hypothetical Target scenarios, the internal motivations are not.

Responding to a tantrum

As a parent, you can learn to discern the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. In fact, you probably already have a good sense for when your child is manipulating you as opposed to feeling overwhelmed.

Respond to tantrum behavior with compassion, acknowledging your child’s emotions even as you hold to your limits. For example, if your child has a tantrum after you say no to candy, you might say, “I understand that you’re upset because we’re not buying candy today. I like candy too! But we’re not buying it.”

You reflect your child’s feelings and demonstrate calm empathy, but you also hold firm to your decision.

Responding to a meltdown

Respond to meltdown behavior in an even simpler fashion: keep yourself and your child as calm and as safe as possible.

As Eileen Riley-Hall, an autism parent, teacher, and author, says in the Care.com article, How to Handle the 4 Most Challenging Autism Behaviors:

“The basic thing [to do during a meltdown] is to hold them and calm them and wait until they can calm down themselves …. just keep them safe and soothe them in whatever way you know works until they can recover.”

(That said, you know your child’s sensory profile best. If physical touch is too difficult for your child to handle during a meltdown, only reach out if it’s necessary for safety purposes.)

Notice what’s not in Riley-Hall’s description, namely:

  • Taking dramatic action or physically forcing your child to relocate
  • Trying to reason with your child and convince them not to be upset
  • Yelling at your child and speaking harshly
  • Punishing your child for his/her behavior

Trying to correct your child during a meltdown isn’t effective, so focus on de-escalation strategies instead.

Work with emotional regulation skills you’ve practiced in calm moments, such as deep breathing exercises. If your child has a Positive Behavior Support Plan (PBSP) created by a helping professional, comply with the specific guidelines listed there as well.

Take a moment for yourself

One other key tip for meltdown management: take a moment to breathe and regain a sense of calm within yourself.

If your child isn’t in any immediate physical danger, take a beat. Notice your emotional response. Observe the part of you that feels fearful, angry, or panicked. Offer compassion to yourself in the moment.

Why do we encourage this kind of mindfulness? Well, the reasoning is twofold:

First, we advocate taking pause because you are a parent doing your very best to deal with a difficult situation, and you deserve some grace. After all, no one wants to deal with a dramatic meltdown in the middle of a Target. But sometimes, that’s reality. And in order to cope calmly, you need to offer yourself some kindness.

Next, we recommend a momentary gap between your child’s outburst and your response simply because your reaction is so important. You have the power to escalate or de-escalate the situation with your words, body language, and overall approach.

Also, keep in mind what a meltdown feels like for someone with autism. As Emma Dalmayne, an autism parent and self-advocate, writes in her article on The Mighty:

“When you have a meltdown, it’s as if the world is ending. Everything is too much and you feel like an overwhelming darkness has engulfed your very being. Irrepressible anger that may seem completely irrational to an outsider can be inwardly devastating [you] internally.”

Practical considerations

Since many children with autism engage in aggressive or self-injurious behavior in the midst of meltdowns, your primary focus is to ensure your child’s physical safety.

If this is an ongoing issue in your family, prepare and protect yourself and your child. Consider taking a behavior management training course and learning safe holds. (One well-known behavior management training for parents and direct-care professionals is The Mandt System®, which offers both in-person and online training.)

If your child tends to run away mid-meltdown, you can create personal identification cards to help ensure a safe return home. You might also invest in a medical alert bracelet if needed.

In addition, you can carry pre-made autism behavior cards like these to hand to concerned bystanders. After all, when your child melts down in public, the last thing you want to worry about is what to say when concerned strangers approach. The cards save you the trouble of trying to articulate what’s going on in a highly-charged moment.

Finally, we want to remind you: this is hard work! If you can remain calm and do your best to keep your child safe during a meltdown, you’ve already done a great job. Your child is fortunate to have you for a parent.

10 Tips for Managing a Meltdown