Thursday, July 18, 2013

Teach Kids About Meltdowns


by Bec Oakley
originally posted on

“You are an angry person”.

This is the self-image that I’ve had for most of my life, since I first heard those words in third grade. An angry person. The Hulk, capable of explosion at any moment. It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I came to understand that it was completely wrong. That my stress-induced outbursts or language shutdowns weren’t aggression at all, but the involuntary response to overload known as a meltdown.

Meltdowns happen in situations where it's hard to cope and there's no way to escape or relieve the tension. The body is overwhelmed by cognitive, sensory or emotional demands that exceed the capacity to process them, and triggers a panic-like reaction in which the brain starts to shut down. Language and executive functions like memory, decision making and problem solving become compromised, making it difficult to find a way out of the situation.

Sensory overload, confusion, frustration and pain are all things that can trigger this kind of physiological reaction. If the balance between demands and coping isn’t restored, the meltdown progresses toward an external outburst or internal shutdown.

These episodes of intense stress, panic and explosion can be really traumatic and painful to go through, but it’s not just experiencing the meltdowns which can have serious long-term impacts on mental and physical well-being.

It’s what you’re taught about them.


For most of my life I didn’t understand the way my own body worked.

I didn’t know that I was more sensitive to sound than other people, or that others found eye contact to be a comfortable and rewarding thing to do. I assumed we were all operating with the same kind of hardware, so the fact that I couldn’t tolerate things that others seemed to be able to must surely have been a character flaw on my part. I’d learned to interpret my own behaviour in the only context that was given to me...

If you yell, you’re angry.
If you avoid eye contact, you’re rude.
If you sit in the corner at a party, you’re impolite.
If you don’t answer your teacher, you’re naughty.
If you don’t want to join in, you’re stubborn/selfish/lazy/boring.

Not wanting to be thought of as any of these things, I constantly put myself in situations which were overwhelming for me - and kept myself there long past the point of overload. Meltdowns were inevitable.

Without knowledge of my own limits, I wasn't able to recognize when I was reaching overload or find the exit strategies that would’ve prevented the meltdowns. I wasn’t able to plan ways to cope or reduce their intensity. Without an explanation for my reactions or the words to explain them to others, I accepted the only reasons given to me - that I was angry, intolerant, rude or stubborn.

This fallout - the confusion, helplessness and negative self-image - is a big part of the long-term cost of meltdowns.

And it’s one that’s completely preventable.


Kids who are prone to meltdowns are well aware that they happen, and what those around them think about that. What they're less likely to understand is exactly what's happening, and why. And in the absence of that information they will form their own explanations.

Don't let them go thirty years before they get the right one.
To read more, click here.....

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