Emotional Meltdowns: When Anger, Frustration, and Irritation Reach a Tipping Point

Child jumping in puddle

Emotional meltdowns commonly frustrate parents and seem hard to understand, prevent, and manage. Children often lose control of their emotions when they can’t verbalize their needs. Their irritation, frustration, and anger build up until they reach a tipping point.

When the intensity of children’s emotions becomes too much for their nervous system to handle, the thinking part of their brain loses connection with the emotional part of their brain and the emotional part of the brain takes over. Once that happens, children can’t think clearly. They will likely need to calm their body and nervous system down by slowing down their breathing and walking away from the difficult situation at hand, before they can engage their thinking brain again and figure out how to proceed. The same holds true when adults get upset. 

Children may be able to better understand and articulate the cause(s) of their sense of overwhelm after they have regained composure. Watch this fun YouTube video with your children to learn more about the brain science behind emotional meltdowns and how you and your children can best respond when children become overwhelmed.

When the cycle of emotional escalation, loss of control, and achievement of equilibrium happens multiple times it can leave children feeling ‘on edge’, and make it more likely that they will “flip their lid” again. Perhaps the best way to remedy this situation is through prevention. When parents take steps to keep their nervous system consistently balanced and regulated, and help their children do the same, the frequency of children’s meltdowns may begin to decrease.

Child on swing

Anne Berkery, OTR/L of the Intuition Wellness Team offers the following suggestions for preventing and managing emotional meltdowns.

Occupational Therapist, Anne Berkery on Balancing the Nervous System

1. Parents: First check in with yourself. Know that it is very important for you to be regulated! You can follow the activities below for yourself as well as your child. If you are stressed, your child will also be stressed. Try to keep a simple schedule. Include down time to rest, as well as time to have fun and be spontaneous with your child. 

2. Get plenty of sleep. Set up a regular bedtime routine with relaxing activities, such as a warm bath or a massage with lotion. Don’t use electronic devices like your cell phone at night. Have a story time before bed and dim the lights an hour or two before bedtime. Weighted blankets, quilts, or comforters may help your child relax and fall asleep. Keep your bedtime and wake-up time consistent every day. Make sure your child feels safe before falling asleep, so they can sleep through the night.

Children and teens need more sleep than adults. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following guidelines for how much sleep your children should get each night:

  • Newborn (0-3 months old): 14-17 hours
  • Infant (4-11 months old): 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years old): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years old): 10-13 hours
  • School-aged children (6-13 years old): 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17 years old): 8-10 hours

Child grabbing strawberries

3. Make sure you and your family eat food that provides the nutrients you need to fuel your bodies. Here are a few basic guidelines:

  • Avoid processed foods
  • Eat organic foods if possible
  • Limit sugar/carbohydrates
  • Start your day with proteins
  • Drink lots of water
  • Do not eat foods with artificial food dyes and natural flavorings

A naturopathic doctor can help you and your family develop a nutritious, balanced diet and find foods that are right for you.

4. Get daily exercise. Choose a form of exercise that your child likes, and exercise as a family if possible. You can take walks together, ride bikes, go to the park, attend family yoga classes, etc. Try to have your child get some exercise before the school day starts so they can focus during school. Let them play on the school playground, or ride their bike or walk to school. 

Doing jumping jacks at home is a great, quick exercise that can be done before school. Jumping jacks provide vestibular and proprioceptive input, which helps develop body awareness and allows children to sense their body’s position in space. Jumping jacks are also an aerobic activity. Aerobic activity strengthens the cardiovascular system and helps the brain prepare for thinking and mental concentration.

5. Breathing techniques are one of the best things you can do to regulate the nervous system. One simple breathing technique you and your children can try is called “belly breathing” or “balloon breaths”. Take a deep breath in through the nose, letting your belly fill up like a balloon. Then exhale, and let the ‘balloon’ empty out. Perform belly breathing several times until you and your child feel your nervous system slow down and become calm. Practice this technique regularly to maintain composure and a sense of calm.

6. There are many other self-regulating activities you and your children can practice to help keep your nervous system calm and organized. Rhythm is one of the most powerful ways to regulate the nervous system. When your children practice activities such as running, skipping, jumping rope, yoga, and dance while focusing on their rhythm and timing, it helps their nervous system function optimally, and allows children to feel calm. There are also different rhythmic programs that a pediatric occupational therapist can recommend to help children regulate their nervous system, such as Rhythmic Movement, Bal-A-Vis-X, and Interactive Metronome. Pediatric occupational therapists can also provide sensory tools for children, such as body socks and deep pressure massage, that help children calm their nervous system.

At Intuition Wellness Center, we specialize in health and wellness services for children, young adults, and their families. If you think you would like some extra support, we’re here for you.

Written by: Anne Berkery, OTR/L

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