5 Critical Steps to Take When Your Child has a Meltdown

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Meltdowns, tantrums, rages… no matter what you call them, they can be of the most challenging parts of parenting. We’ve all been there. In the moment when your child has a meltdown, it’s hard to know what to do, particularly if you’re out in public and have to contend with public scrutiny.

5 critical steps to take when your child has a meltdown. This takes a bottom-up approach.While it is always important to determine the underlying cause for a meltdown, such as whether it is a sensory meltdown, a response to a trauma trigger, a fight, flight or freeze reaction, or just a plain old tantrum, during the meltdown, you just need to help your child get calm.

Yes, there are ways to try to prevent meltdowns from happening in the first place. Those are determined largely by the root cause of the meltdown. However, once the meltdown has started, none of those strategies will work.

The critical steps to take when your child has a meltdown:

    1. Stay calm. There is no helping your child to stay calm when you are not calm yourself. Breathe.
    2. Water and food. Meeting a child’s most basic needs can help them to go from fight, flight or freeze mode to being able to access more of their cognitive functioning. This will bring the intensity of their meltdown way down. A healthy snack and water are particularly important for children who may have been neglected or gone hungry in the past, even if it was when they were too young to remember.
    3. Sensory. Whether or not a child is experiencing a sensory meltdown, sensory input, particularly proprioception, or heavy work, can snap them right back into a calm state. I particularly like to offer them lavender playdough. They can use it to squeeze and squish and it provides immediate sensory feedback. Squeeze balls, mermaid pillows or pushing a laundry basket filled with books also work well.
    4. Connection. Children need connection. This can be achieved during a meltdown by making eye contact, helping them to breathe in and out slowly while you breathe with them, and providing reassurance. Avoid saying “calm down” and instead choose some of these alternatives.
    5. Self-regulation. The ultimate goal obviously is to promote self-regulation so that a child learns to calm themselves. This usually works best when the other steps on this list have been already taken and those needs have been met. Remind the child of their calm-down strategies. It is best to have practised (and practised and practised) those strategies at times when they were calm. If you have a calm-down kit for your child, this would be the ideal time to pull that out.

Recently, a friend called me for advice while her daughter was raging in the background. She had tried offering water and a snack and both suggestions were rejected (rather pointedly I will add). I asked her if she had any playdough. She was able to find some. I could tell that she was skeptical of my suggestion, but she offered it to her daughter anyway. The response was immediate. Once that playdough was in her hands, her daughter’s screams stopped and she was able to finally articulate the underlying reasons beneath the rage. It was then that her mom was able to validate her feelings and make that connection with her.

I know that not all of these suggestions will work initially. In fact, you may end up having that glass of water thrown in your direction (be sure to use a plastic cup)! But using these 5 steps will help to de-escalate your child’s big emotions. Once they are calm, you can try to determine what may have caused the meltdown in the first place.

The reason these 5 steps are so critical when your child is having a meltdown is because they address things in the brain from the bottom up. They meet the child’s basic survival needs such as breathing, food and water, and then begin to work their way up from there. If you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs with physical survival needs being at the base, then physical safety needs, then love and belonging needs, these steps begin to make more sense. After love and belonging (met in these steps by CONNECTION), comes self-esteem needs. This is where the self-regulation step comes in.

Determining the root of the meltdown:

Keeping track of behaviours such as meltdowns can help you find the root causes for them by finding patterns and triggers. You can use make notes in a calendar or use the forms such as the sensory triggers log and the behaviour tracker in the More Calm in the Chaos printable planner.

Some common causes of meltdowns:

(click each link for more information)

Create an Anti-Anxiety Kit for Your ChildCalming Your Child’s Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

If the Friends Were Asked Adoption Questions

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Adoptive families know the drill. Before you go out in public with your kids, you have to mentally prepare yourself for the onslaught of questions. I’ve found that as my kids have gotten older, the comments and inquisitions have become less frequent thankfully, but they still happen. From the well-meaning to the outright rude, adoptive parents have heard it all.

What would happen if the Friends responded to common adoption questions? a story told in gifs!

Since I’ve been writing about such heavy topics lately like the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response in Children, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Sensory Meltdowns, and Secondary Trauma in Adoptive Moms, I thought I would lighten things up today with something designed to give you a laugh.

If the Friends were asked these common adoption questions, I imagine their responses would go something like this:

“Where did you get that baby?”

“What happened to his real mom?”

“Was she on drugs?”

“Can’t you have your own children?”

“My sister’s cousin’s neighbour’s friend adopted and that child burned their house down. Aren’t you scared about things like that?”

“We adopted our dog and she used to be abused so I know EXACTLY what you’re going through.”

“How much did he cost?”

“Did you know they were going to be a different colour?”

“Are they twins?”

“She’s so cute. I just want to take her home.”

“We sponsor a kid in Africa so I totally get it.”

“Do they know they’re adopted?” (said right in front of the child!)

“Are you trying to be like Angelina?”

“She is so lucky!”

“Do you love her the same as your real kids?”

“Can I touch his hair?”

“We’re an adoptive family too.”

Disclaimer: This is just meant to add some humour, not offend. While these are just meant to add some light to this, I know that most people who ask questions of adoptive families mean well and are either curious or are perhaps even interested in adoption themselves. I have written a few things in all seriousness about this topic as well, so if you are genuinely interested in how to respond to the questions, you can check these out:

How to Answer the Rude Questions

The 10 Strangest Adoption Questions I’ve Been Asked

Self-Care for Foster and Adoptive Families

More Calm in the Chaos Printable Planner for Moms of Special Needs Kids

What Is Triggering the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response in My Child?

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

There has been a tremendous response to my article about Calming Your Child’s Fight, Flight or Freeze Response and a lot of questions. I wanted to follow up with some additional information to help you identify what may be triggering the fight, flight or freeze response in your child.

Determining what is triggering the fight, flight or freeze response in your child is an important step towards creating healing and lasting change.

As a bit of a recap, the fight, flight or freeze response is our brain’s built-in alarm system designed to help us in times of imminent danger. The problem occurs when that response system is misfiring due to increased cortisol levels from prenatal stress or early childhood trauma or from external factors such as sensory triggers.

In the other article, I went over some of the signs of fight and flight and freeze. I also discussed ways to talk to your kids about recognizing their responses and shared my favourite video for kids on the amygdala and losing control of their emotions. I shared strategies for calming your child once they are in fight, flight or freeze mode and a few tips on preventing them from “flipping their lid” in the first place. You can read all of that here.

A common frustration for parents whose children are losing control of their emotions is not understanding what the cause is. The thing is, it’s complicated, but there are some commonalities that can help you play detective and determine what your child’s triggers may be.

For children who have experienced early childhood trauma or prenatal stressors, reminders of that trauma are usually a root of their triggers. If a child witnessed domestic violence or loud fighting, yelling or loud noises may be a trigger for them. For a child who was neglected or abandoned, feeling left out or alone can send the alarm bells sounding. Children who were abused may associate change or unpredictability with their trauma and just a change in routine or sense of chaos can trigger that alarm. A child who spent time in the hospital, even as a baby in the NICU, can be triggered by the sound of beeping that mimics the sounds they would have heard in the hospital.

Triggers can be subtle and even a smell or passing by a sound or visual that reminds them of their past trauma can be enough to send a child into full blown fight, flight or freeze mode. For parents, it can be like living in a minefield. You can feel like you don’t know where or when the next thing that will set them off will be.

Keeping a record of your child’s fight, flight or freeze responses along with notes on possible triggers can help you to see patterns emerging. This is an effective tool for parents. You can create your own or you can use the sensory triggers log or behaviour tracker found in the More Calm in the Chaos printable planner.

Common triggers for fight, flight or freeze:

  • transition from one activity or place to another
  • hunger
  • thirst
  • sudden change
  • sensory overload
  • unpredictability/feeling lack of control
  • chaos
  • feelings of vulnerability or rejection
  • loss
  • loneliness
  • lack of attention
  • confrontation or “getting in trouble”
  • authority including parents, teachers, police, social workers depending on past history
  • praise
  • attention
  • calm
  • routine/structure

I know that both “attention” and “lack of attention” are on the list. That is because for some children, for instance those who have been neglected, lack of attention may be a trigger, while for others, such as those who have experienced sexual abuse, attention may be viewed as a threat and therefore, a trigger.

Likewise, both chaos and calm can be a trigger. For children who had an early childhood plagued by chaos or abuse, calm or routine and structure can feel unsettling and unfamiliar. Depending on the particular child, they may be triggered by peace in the home or they may be triggered by chaos or unpredictability.

One big signal to parents that a child is being triggered is when their response to something seems disproportionate to the situation. It is important to get to the root of your child’s triggers so that they can continue on their healing journey and begin to calm their responses to those triggers.

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Calming Your Child’s Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

The body’s alarm system is located in the brain. The amygdala, part of the limbic system, is designed to recognize danger and prepare our body to react to it. When it’s working properly, it should send signals only when there is real danger present. For some kids, the system is faulty and transmits false alarms, sending them into full blown fight, flight or freeze mode weekly, daily or even multiple times a day. Often, this faulty alarm system is due to increased cortisol levels due to prenatal stress or early childhood trauma. It can also be due to conditions such as SPD (sensory processing disorder), where sensory triggers cause alarm sensors to sound when no real danger is present.

Calming Your Child's Fight, Flight or Freeze ResponseTo make matters even more complicated, your brain sees higher functioning tasks such as logic and planning as nonessential in a crisis. so it effectively shuts down that part of your brain once the fight, flight, freeze response is triggered. This is good if you’re in mortal danger and need all your energy to run away, but bad if your amygdala is triggered by everyday occurrences such as loud noises or the smell of vanilla.

Fight can look like:

  • kicking
  • screaming
  • spitting
  • pushing
  • throwing anything he can get his hands on
  • his hands clasped in fists, ready to punch
  • glaring
  • clawing at the air
  • gasping for breath

Flight can look like:

  • darting eyes
  • restlessness
  • excessive fidgeting
  • doing anything to get away
  • running without concern for his own safety

Freeze can look like:

  • holding his breath
  • heart pounding and/or decreased heart rate
  • shutting down
  • feeling unable to move
  • escaping into his own mind
  • feeling numb
  • whining
  • daydreaming

Did you do a double-take when you read “whining” on the list of flight and freeze responses? When I first learned that whining can be a flight or freeze response, I was surprised too. When I thought more about it though, I realized that whining could be an effective stalling tactic, therefore could be a learned freeze response or could be used to escape from something unpleasant.

Having your body going into fight, flight or freeze response often and unnecessarily can be debilitating. It is no wonder that some of our kiddos struggle with regulation!

There are ways that you can help your child to recognize when their brain starts to respond this way. The first step in helping them out of fight, flight, freeze response is to recognize the signs as quickly as possible and help your child learn to identify them.

There are a few easy ways to explain brain concepts to your kids. I like to use “upstairs brain/downstairs brain” and “flipping the lid” (thanks to Dan Siegel – a very useful video of his explanation here), but you can also use the lizard brain explanation (video about that here).

Explain the amygdala to your child. Empower them with knowledge to enable them to talk about their responses and better understand themselves. This also gives them a scientific reason for why they respond the way they do instead of just feeling like they are “bad” or out of control. I particularly like this video for kids.

Talk about the things they notice in their bodies right before the fight, flight or freeze response like their breathing speeding up, a funny feeling in their tummy, tightness in their chest, or their face getting hot. Then arm them with calm down skills that they can use the next time they notice those same feelings creeping up.

It is beneficial to track the patterns of these fight, fright, freeze responses in your child. They are likely not aware of what their triggers are, but by tracking their behaviours and the preceding events and possible sensory triggers, you will be able to pinpoint patterns that emerge over time. This will help you not only avoid those triggers, but anticipate them and be able to help your child navigate through those situations because they will be prepared for them.

The More Calm in the Chaos planner is perfect for helping you track these patterns in your child. It includes tracking logs for sensory triggers and behaviour. It is designed to help you see patterns and get to the bottom of what is triggering your child.


While your child is in fight, flight or freeze mode, help them to focus on their breathing. Regulating their breathing can help bring their “upstairs brain” back on board.

Avoid using the words “calm down”. Instead, use “let’s breathe” or “in through the nose, out through the mouth” or “you’re okay, just breathe”. Keep your words simple. Remember that they are only accessing their base brain right now, so lecturing or trying to reason with them is pointless.

Having them do crossing the midline exercises can also help re-set their brain, as it encourages the right and left hemispheres of the brain to talk to each other which can help stimulate the “”upstairs” brain to get engaged.

Once their breathing is regulated, you can try other calming techniques. Squeezing a stress ball, spending time in a sensory room or calm down area, blowing bubbles, colouring, yoga poses, chewing bubble gum, doing sensory activities (particularly heavy work ones), and calm down bottles are all good strategies to use. Some will work better for your child than others, which is something else to keep track of for future purposes.

After the incident has passed completely and they are no longer triggered, you can start a discussion about what factors may have contributed to the fight, flight, freeze response, what they felt in their body just before it happened, and what techniques worked for calming them quickly.

Are you confused about what is triggering your child and causing them to go into fight, flight or freeze mode? You can read about common triggers here.

Join me for a free 5 part email series, Little Hearts, Big Worries offering resources and hope for parents.