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Emotional Dysregulation: 3 Types of Meltdowns & How to Help Your Child Through Them

Parenthood is an exhilarating journey filled with joy, laughter and challenges. Navigating these challenges becomes even more complex when a child exhibits emotional dysregulation or angry and aggressive behaviours. Understanding these issues, especially in neurodivergent children, is crucial to fostering a supportive environment that brings out the best in your child.

Parents need to grasp that a child’s emotional state can shift rapidly and that it doesn’t always have to end in a completely dysregulated or overloaded child.

Anger and Aggression in ADHD Children

Neurodivergent children, especially those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), often grapple with anger and aggression. And the challenging behaviours associated with that anger are often even more of a struggle due to a lack of impulse control.

Unlike neurotypical individuals, ADHDers may struggle to halt impulsive actions driven by intense anger. Traditional discipline methods prove ineffective in such cases, demanding a more nuanced and empathetic approach.

toddler tantrum
Source: Bigstock

Understanding the nature of anger in ADHDers is key. Imagine it as a runaway train, accelerating until it crashes. The ADHD brain functions similarly, lacking the ability to regulate itself. Therefore, external human intervention is crucial to prevent destructive outcomes. In other words, a person needs to help the train stop / the angry ADHD brain to become regulated and calm. And this will not happen by means such as punishment, shouting or discipline.

Understanding emotional dysregulation: AKA Meltdowns 

Meltdowns are part of every childhood. Children with ADHD often experience more intense meltdowns but the tips and strategies below can work for any child who is experiencing emotional dysregulation.

Meltdowns are not ‘just misbehaviours’ but mostly reactions to stress, anxiety, or sensory overload. Adults often inadvertently contribute to meltdowns by misinterpreting early signs and resorting to punitive measures as a response. Another important thing to understand is that meltdowns are not just ‘tantrums’.

 Meltdowns are often beyond a person’s control. 

By recognising and appropriately addressing the child’s needs, adults can promptly reduce or avert meltdowns and promote a more supportive environment.

Three types of meltdowns to be aware of

  1. Internal Meltdowns – These are often referred to as a shutdown, where the person becomes unable to move or speak or both.
  2. External meltdowns – The first type of external meltdown is the most apparent, where the person becomes clearly out of control. They may bang their head, hurt themself, throw themselves on the floor or scream.
  3. Angry meltdowns – This is the second type of external meltdown and is much harder to deal with for adults and the child. This is where the meltdown comes out in the form of anger. It appears as if targeted and controlled. However, the child has no control over it and the feeling of extreme anxiety to the point of complete overwhelm is the same as any other meltdown.

While each is a different display of frustrations and anger, the journey to each of them is similar and can be supported with the right tools.

As parents, we need to re-program ourselves to stop focusing on punishment and rather look at ways we can bring up their self-esteem and bring down their anxiety.

5 Short-term strategies to help reduce meltdowns

It is important to find ways that suit the child to help reduce the severity or prevent the meltdown altogether. Short-term strategies could include:

1. Regular exercise Taking part in at least 30-45 minutes a day in addition to running around at school will make a difference to a child. This doesn’t need to be a particular sport. It can be as simple as walking the dog, going for a bike ride, creating a fitness circuit, martial arts, and parkour.

2. Change the environment – If a child’s anxiety starts to rise or they become defiant, taking them out of the environment they are in, not as a punishment, will make a difference. For example, if they are in a bright, noisy living room take them into a bedroom with lights off and quiet.

3. Meditation and mindfulness – Doing daily or regular mindfulness activities can have an effect. Suggestions include walking on grass without shoes and socks, blowing dandelions and walking along the beach or in nature.

4. Reducing sensory challenges Look at ways you can reduce your child’s sensory challenges such as opting for loose clothing with no tags or seams, turning off fluorescent lighting if they have a window and ensuring there is limited background noise.

5. Be understanding – It is important to be really understanding when a child is frustrated and feeling angry. Try not to judge them but show them support by letting them know it is OK to feel angry and frustrated and that we love them. It is important to reassure them that all humans get angry and lash out sometimes. Make them feel that they are not being judged.

4 Long-term strategies to help reduce meltdowns

There are also long-term strategies to consider, including:

1. Omega-3 – Adding Omega-3 supplements to your child’s diet has been found to reduce anxiety and consequently aid emotional regulation*. 

2. Build a solid connection and relationship with your child Any parent-child relationship should strive for a strong connection. Ideally, parents should look at moving beyond the traditional parent-child dynamic to a more friendly and collaborative relationship. This contributes significantly to a child’s overall well-being**.

3. Ensure the basic needs are met – Hunger, thirst and fatigue should always be factored in as they all play a role in calming emotional dysregulation.

4. Medication and therapies – Explore medication and therapies with your healthcare professionals for additional support. Art and music therapy are proven to be particularly effective forms of intervention.

Overall, by recognising the child behind the behaviour, parents and educators can celebrate the individual and help them navigate the challenges posed by emotional dysregulation.

Ultimately, the journey involves nurturing neurodivergent brilliance, embracing each child’s unique strengths, and building a future filled with understanding, acceptance, and success.

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About Rebecca Challoner 

Rebecca-Challoner-Profile-picture

As well as being the CEO and Founder of My Spirited Child and the National PEKE Centre, Rebecca Challoner is also a Writer, Presenter and Trainer on diverse needs, learning difficulties and behaviour.

Rebecca has presented at many conferences and events including The Victorian, Queensland, Western Australia, and New South Wales ADHD Conferences, the National Education Summit, The Global Potty Talk Summit, Mummycon and countless other Seminars and Conferences both nationally and internationally. Rebecca also trains teachers and professionals in schools and organisations.

Over the years, Rebecca has done a vast amount of work with neurodivergent children and their families and carers. Working with people around the globe to help improve the lives and futures of neurodivergent individuals.


*2018 meta-analysis, JAMA Network. Ohio State University College of Medicine 2011

**University of Harvard, Dr Robert Waldinger

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