Meltdowns – How to help when they “absolutely can’t take it any more”

Meltdowns – We’ve all had them. Some of us have had them more recently than others. Some might live with someone (grown up or little) who frequently melts down.

In psychology, we understand that melt downs are the letting out of built up emotions – frustration, excitement, disappointment, anger, despair, grief….

Strong feelings usually let us know that we have a big problem, or sometimes an accumulation of smaller problems, that need solving. Unresolved problems, worries, fear and distress can build to panic or rage when the brain is overwhelmed at the work it needs to do to coordinate all the information it is getting to come up with an action that will satisfy and solve.   Melt downs are certainly a letting go and letting go can have its advantages. With our cortex back in control after an emotional outburst, we can often think things through more clearly.

However, melt downs can come at a cost. Often, when we let our emotions take the front seat in our brain, we can do and say things that can hurt others physically or emotionally. So, after a meltdown, we can end up with more problems in addition to those that triggered the explosion in the first place.

There are some factors that we know are linked to a higher likelihood of meltdowns.

  • The fight and flight (or freeze) response – Our body is naturally wired to defend itself. If it feels threatened, brain functioning in the cortex or the thinking part of the brain, is compromised or completely by-passed in order to make quicker, life-saving reactions. If someone regularly interprets a situation or a problem as a threat to their own well being or life (or to the life of someone they care about) melt downs are more likely. Sadly, if someone has lived through multiple life-threatening events, their fight and flight response can be, understandably, twitchy.
  • Someone’s temperament – Temperament is a stable pattern of responding that we are born with. Our temperaments are short lived and can be altered with time and parenting. Children who are born with a ‘touchy’ or ‘anxious’ temperament, are more likely to melt down. In adults, we more readily refer to stable character and coping traits as personality. Some people with certain personalities find it very hard to cope without meltdowns
  • Mental health – People who have troubles sustaining attention or who have a depression or anxiety disorder may be more prone melt down. Substance use, be it coffee, alcohol or illicit drugs, will also make a person more prone to melt downs because it alters the amount of stimulation the brain experiences.
  • Difficulties being able to see other peoples’ points of view or think abstractly to solve problems – Children of a certain age are more prone to melt downs because they have not yet developed the capacity to take another’s perspective or to solve problems. As we get older and learn more, we get cleverer and more creative about coming up with solutions to problems. If, however, our brain activity is compromised (by injury, Autism, dementia, stroke), melt downs can become more frequent.
  • Inflexibility – Some people are quite rigid with their ideas and they have trouble changing them, even when they are presented with new ideas or evidence contrary to their opinions. Inflexible people find it hard to imagine. Like the ability to think abstractly, inflexibility can be associated with Autism Spectrum concern, a head injury, a cognitive disability or dementia.

Of course, if you know someone well, you will understand their triggers and the early warning signs that things are going to get messy. Be sure to use this information for good and not evil. Avoid unessential triggers where the avoidance does not affect their quality of life, but we do not want people who have melt downs to have their lives limited by too much avoidance.

If you see warning signs, act to de-escalate. Different de-escalations will work for different people so it’s wise to review all your past attempts. De-escalation will involve different strategies for different ages. For toddlers, it might be a noise or a shiny object, for older children it might involve humour.

The idea of de-escalation is to get the brain to focus on what it can do and offer it some really basic tasks rather than suggest that it do something that might just inflame emotions further. I like to tell people about the Three Things Thing.

The Three Things Thing involves asking the person to tell you three things that they can see right now, then three things that they can feel with their skin right now and then three different sounds that they can hear in their space right now. If they are a little calmer, but need more, try for another two of each thing, then another one. Your aim is to get their brains to a point where they no longer feel that they are out of control. Focusing on the very basic senses in the here and now can help. Try it with your friends and family! You can almost feel your brain changing down a few gears. Bonus points if you can get them to try to slow their breathing down, too!

Longer term, we need to help the person to prevent more meltdowns. This may include planning to gradually introduce a watered-down version of a troubling scenario, a step at a time, and help the person to stay relaxed and celebrate as they tolerate a little bit more of a feared or distressing situation at a time.   However, living or spending time with people who have meltdowns can be very wearying and you may wish to get some extra help

You as a parent, partner, teacher, case-manager or friend might have some really useful information, but a visit to a psychologist can help you and your partner-in-melt-downs to work on a comprehensive plan tailor made for their temperament/personality, mental health, history, triggers, thinking patterns and behaviours. The plan should also involve teaching the person other ways for dealing with strong emotions or new ways of thinking about problems.


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