I read a great article recently about sensory meltdowns and it was a great reminder to talk to the parents we work with about a dynamic that can very easily be misinterpreted. So what is a “temper tantrum?” Most of the time, temper tantrum is easily recognizable in toddlers and maybe even teenagers! Your child is not getting their way, or what they want and they pitch a fit, screaming and crying. They can roll around on the floor, sometimes even hitting their heads against a wall in the extreme. A temper tantrum is often being characterized by a child being told “no.”
In contrast, a sensory meltdown could better be described as a “release,” or overflow of emotion as a result of being exposed to a sensory input that feels unpleasant or even intolerable. In the article, the mom describes her 9 year old daughter as holding it together then crying in the car after cheerleading practice became intolerably loud. Of course, when your child is younger and can’t tell you what the upsetting force was, it gets trickier. If you see a meltdown coming on, you can ask yourself or your child a few questions, based on your knowledge of them and what sets them off:
- Is it too bright in here? Do you need your sunglasses?
- Do we need to leave?
- Does your body feel funny?
- Are you uncomfortable?
Assure them you are there to help. However, once your child is in a meltdown, they are already experiencing “fight or flight.” This means that their nervous system has gotten involved, and you are less likely to be able to intervene. At that point, you can:
- Talk as little as possible.
- Give them space to breathe, cry, whatever they need to do. This is what the mom inherently knows to do in the article.
- Remove them from adverse environment.
- Plan for next time! Make a “retreat” in your home: a quiet space with noise cancelling headphones, quiet music, dim lights and away from anything unpleasant. Maybe some gum, a quiet toy but no screens.