Meltdowns: Tips for kids on and off the spectrum

Meltdowns are a reality that I’ve lived with front and center for years parenting my sweetie. Working in a school helped me to understand that many children struggle managing large feelings. In reality, most people struggle with temper. It is ordinary.

Temper manifests as either crying or angry outbursts. People don’t like visible displays of temper, it’s  upsetting. It distracts from the group, it brings people down. It’s unwelcome. In our increasingly crowded and public world, self-control and maturity are assets.

Temper is part of the human experience. You don’t want to not feel. Feelings are not bad, its what you do with the feelings that is bad. What happens when you stuff your feelings? Over eating, depression, addiction. Or giving in to temper? Broken relationships, shame. So what do you do?

I had a friend who told me once, “Feelings aren’t bad, you just have to walk through the whole thing.” I think of that often–she said “walk through” not work it up, not stay there and hash it out endlessly. Move through it. What did Winston Churchill say? “When you are going through Hell, keep going?” That.

Mr. Rogers, the great voice for compassion wrote that when he was angry, he swam or played the piano. He still had temper. But he learned to not take it out on people. He recognized it and directed his energy towards something that didn’t hurt himself or others. I want my boys to recognize their temper and manage it, not be led by it.

while Brady was a toddler, I read a ton of Mr. Rogers. It really helped me keep my compassion when I was exhausted and overwhelmed.

So let’s talk about temper. A foundation of our parenting is on the topic of Temper. I started using baby signs with Brady when he was 9 months old, when he was older and did them back to me, the three he used the most were “Suprise”, “Hurt” and “Help.” It made me sad that those were such common concerns for him, it made me glad that at least I knew.

Everything surprised and scared Brady. If I stood up and walked out of the room, he would burst into tears. I am not joking when I say I have PTSD from the amount of crying and distress he expressed as a infant, toddler, preschooler and kinder. He clung to me and I felt so frustrated that every trivial event that involved people seemed to send him over the edge. It defied imagination. I watched other kids playing, falling down, picking themselves up and playing more, while I held my heavy, noisy and sobbing three year old who still would not join a group and preferred puzzles to people.

I’m not trying to throw Brady under the bus, I know he might read this. I’m simply pointing out that meltdowns were one of our top parenting challenges. I hope our journey helps your less extreme child–because honestly, this is something most of us don’t have words for–you can’t assume that they will “just get it” or “be good” or “figure it out.” Many of us don’t.

Crying, distress, this is “fearful temper.” Sometimes people forget that fearful temper is as strong as angry temper. Children with fearful temper stuff their feelings of sadness or anxiety inside as they mature. They become quieter, but they still have those large feelings unresolved. You don’t want that. It’s so much better to understand temper so that you can manage it and it doesn’t manage you. I’m writing about children but honestly, think about adults in your life that likely were taught to “suck it up” or “stop crying” or close down in the face of criticism when their feelings burst out of them.

The other side of temper, is angry temper. I don’t need to describe angry temper. Think about temper like a wave. I had a surgery in high school, they rebuilt my chin. It was pretty nasty. My face swelled up and my nose disappeared–I was covered in bruises and resembled a potato while my body was recovering. I had a morphine pump to manage the pain. The nurse told me, when it hurts, even a little bit, hit the button. If you don’t and you wait, the pain will be too great and then we won’t be able to get on top of it. Pain is a wave. Ride it or it will wipe you out.

The same is true for anger. If you can’t recognize it and address it when it is flaring , then you will wipe out and cause lots of collateral damage. So much shame and helplessness comes from melting down when you don’t understand why it happened or what to do. It changes you. It changes how other people regard you. You aren’t a person anymore, you are the embodiment of temper as people look at you and remember your outbursts instead of remembering how you are when you are calm.

What do we do? We talk about it. All the time. It’s a constant conversation in our house. We (my husband and I) talk about our feelings the way you might talk about the weather. I give my boys a language for what is going on. We talk about angry temper, and fearful temper. We say “Feelings come and feelings go.” We talk about what we like to do, so that we can keep in a good mood and sustain a disappointment or frustration without losing our minds.

We give them permission for their feelings. We don’t give them permission to take their large feelings and dump them in the middle of the room and trash everyone. It’s all about breaking points. My children know that if they have too many frustrating events in a row, they will break down. This is average. They have to keep their spirits up. They know they have to eat right. They know if they don’t have protein, their tempers will rile. If they are feeling sick, they are vulnerable to temper.

It is their job, just like finding their shoes, carrying their plate to the counter and feeding the dog, to be conscious about their energy and their day and make sure they are keeping their energy up. How do immature little kids do that? Well, they sure aren’t doing it when they are 3 and 4 and 5. They are just crying or yelling. But how I approach it is the same. I give them the words. That’s angry temper, that’s fearful temper, you didn’t eat lunch and it’s getting hard for you. How can I help get you sorted back to your best self, not your worst self. We all have a best self and a worst self. I accept their worst self, but I don’t want to live their worst self 24 hours a day, I want them to try to bring out their best and make good choices.

We talk about token management, we talk about being group minded. We talk about the specific things we love to do that make us feel good. We get excited when we can find ways to give each other time or an opportunity to do something that they like in particular. Max likes to play outside after school and kick the ball with neighbors. Max also likes getting to school early so he can play ball with his classmates before school starts.  The days that he has freedom and opporunity to mingle with other kids strengthen  him and set him up for success.

Max does not like it when I use a stern voice with him or have an angry face (naturally), it seriously scares him and shuts him down. He takes my tone much harder than Brady, so I have to be mindful of that when I am in temper myself. I let Max know that I recognize that he gets freaked out when I’m in a bad mood. He knows I respect his truth, that I’m trying to be my best self.

I struggle openly with my temper. By keeping the struggle visible, the boys are witness to all the things I do to manage it. I try to slow the pace down when I start feeling unraveled. I turn off the TV. I clean and I say, I’m cleaning because I’m grumpy and it’s better to be away from people right now, I’m not fit for people. I need to sort this out. Looking at my clean bathroom or laundry restores my temper. Or I walk at night and listen to a book.

When Brady’s mood is flagging, he knows his temper is coming out. By then it’s not so helpful for me to chime in with all my talky-talky but at least I’m not mystified. It’s temper. We will get to that later. We can have an honest exchange about what to do differently–because self control is the work of his childhood and it takes time. We talk about being average alot. It’s average to have temper–we don’t say we are afraid of him or his anger. That would only make him afraid of it too.

Recognizing true feelings gives him dignity. It’s empowering. He can say, “hey, I’m starting to feel worked up and anxious. I need to…” play some ball, ride my bike, cuddle in a blanket, put on some music and dance, go outside and yell at the sky. I need to get some tokens back because I am running out. I don’t want to lose my temper.

That is what it is all about right there. Self knowledge, this is my temper, this is what sets me off, this is what brings me back and most importantly, I don’t want to go there.

Brady likes me to walk him inside before school. He doesn’t want to get dropped off. Okay. It helps him get the day started right and at this time in my life, I can walk him to his classroom, so I do it. Brady likes to cuddle with his blankets and read to reset himself. He likes to swing at the park or swim. He likes to pet his dog. He recognizes that these choices give him good feelings and sustain him through the day.


Sometimes even sharing your large joys is exhausting. Realizing that we have different large joys and large distresses is part of growing up–and recognizing that shoving your large feelings all over the place is not always welcome. This is an essential part of parenting my child on the spectrum because I know he won’t just “figure it out” but it’s been very helpful to raise my neurotypical son the same way.

I hope this gives you some perspective on temper and helps ease meltdowns in your family. I’d love to hear from you about temper and how you regard it in your family.





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