When self-regulation falls apart

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There will be times when a child has meltdowns. Even when they’ve learned self-regulation skills and strategies, meltdowns will happen. It’s unlikely you can stop one once it’s started. Try to introduce strategies as quickly as possible but if that doesn’t work, what do you do?



Sometimes, trying to intervene can just make things escalate. Sometimes, the meltdown just has to play out.

The acronym R.E.S.T.O.R.E. (1) can help you remember what to do to help get back to a state of equilibrium. Here’s the process:

Relax and get rid of any thoughts about the possible reason(s) why the child behaved the way they did. Reframe the child’s behavior in neutral terms about what happened, NOT why!
DO NOT start thinking about what you may or may not have done correctly or what errors you made  – this isn’t the time.
Take a deep breath, count to five and calm yourself. Remember that children can be ‘emotional sponges’. If you become agitated, your stress is likely just to add to John’s state. 

Empathize with them and express your concern for the child and their feelings – “I’m sorry you’re upset. Sometimes things just get difficult.”
Don’t talk too much. Keep your discussion short and simple.   

Soothe them silently, say little or nothing; sense their heart rate and breathing to track the child’s stress reaction. If the child responds to back rubs, try that. 

Time alone helps the child calm down; allow them to do nothing or do something that’s less stimulating. You can give them the option of going some place else but it may be too much for them to handle at that moment. You might offer them some water or juice or a piece of food. 

Organize a task or activity into smaller, more ‘do-able’ pieces while they’re calming down. Decide what would constitute ‘done’. You can change the number of things he needs to do (“Let’s do one more”), the difficulty of the task (“How about we try this one.”), the amount of time he needs to spend on the task (“Let’s do this for one more minute and then you’ll be done). Change whatever is needed to give them (and you) a sense of accomplishing something.  It’s usually wise to organize the task/activity out of the child’s line of vision so sight of it doesn’t set them off again.

Reinforce  their feelings of competence, tell them in as few words as possible how they’ve been successful before; prompt them to tell themselves how well they can do and how it takes time to learn.   

Entice them to the task or activity, such as by asking them for help, talking about interesting things about the activity; if they’re calm, encourage them to think about what they could do next time to help themselves.

The ‘Crisis’ Plan

Sometimes, you simply don’t have the time or you’re not in a good location to try these techniques. You may be in a time crunch and not have the resources available to restore the child’s equilibrium. You may be in a busy place and don’t want to embarrass your child or receive advice and judgement from people around you. The child’s behavior may also be causing distress for other people.

You should always have a ‘crisis plan’. If the child is melting down in the middle of a public place, try clearing the area as much as possible. Remove anything that might hurt them. Tell onlookers to move on. Try your best to ignore well-meaning ‘critics’ and ‘advisors’. Some people seem to need to give advice or criticize the child and you. Just tell them the child has special needs and you know what you’re doing.

Don’t talk too much or try to reason with the child. Once they’re distressed, their ability to process information is compromised. Talking too much can make things worse.

The Aftermath

Once the melt down is over, it’s over. I’ve found that most of the time, children don’t remember what happened. It was like a huge storm blew in and now it’s done.

Temple Grandin, an adult with autism, said that her temper tantrums weren’t expressions of emotions. More often than not, they happened when her ‘circuits’ overloaded – when she’d had enough. Once her outburst was over, all of the emotions faded away.
I’ve found that, once the outburst is over, to the child, it’s like nothing ever happened. If you try talking about it, the child may look at you and have no recollection.

Keep that in mind when you de-brief your child. They might not remember much about the outburst. They also may have no insight into why it happened. If that’s the case, move on. Don’t dwell on what just happened. You can work on that another time. Then you can work it into a self-regulation strategy.

Thank you to Marlene Holmgren-Lima for helping me come up with the R.E.S.T.O.R.E. process and acronym
Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

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