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Sensory Meltdowns

Written by: Susan Watson, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

It is important to remember that looking after kids and parenting does not come with a manual. No one is a perfect parent. There is no such thing as the perfect family. None of us get it right, and so do not beat yourself up about it making mistakes.

I am no expert in this area – just a mum of 3 and a grandparent to 8, who has made a lifetime of mistakes. Kids knew me as the morning monster. I have been called a very shouty granny, but I hope this is information helps or is useful to someone. This is a huge subject and barely touches upon it. There may be even one little snippet of information that may help one person, and then it is helpful.


It is important to start by stating that Sensory Meltdowns cannot be and are never a choice. Behavior does not come into this. This is a reaction of the nervous system, and it is a reaction and not a choice.


It is, without a doubt, extremely draining and upsetting to observe any sensory meltdown.

Witnessing and supporting your child through a sensory meltdown is one of the most difficult things a parent can go through. It may test patience and control to the limits.


A good place to start for making positive change is with anxiety. If you have a child playing up, having sensory challenges, or is anxious, you cannot help in any way or improve the situation if you are overstressed or anxious. You need to self-regulate and manage yourself first. A simple way to regulate your own body is to relax your body fully and completely. Just for one second, throughout the day. Breathe! The more you do it, the longer you stay outside, toxic stress and anxiety. You can stay calm and in control when you need it most. I always say do this 200 times a day, and you will be in a place of self-regulation. This 200-times is just a couple of minutes per day.


That is the number one priority – Self-regulation.


Let us look at practical methods you can do during a sensory meltdown from sensory overload. This is while it is taking place.


Regardless of how it comes about, when your child has a sensory meltdown, it is a force to be reckoned with. It presses your own stress and anxiety buttons. Although everything may seem to be out of control, you can do things to help your child in regulating their system, which is what is needed most.


When they are in a meltdown, your child is in a full-blown fight or flight mentality. Reasoning with them is pointless. There is no reasoning. Their sympathetic nervous system has kicked into survival mode. They can do nothing about this. They cannot think or listen. The logical thinking mind is shut down, and the hearing is impaired. It is so important the emotional brain is now in control.


Model Breathing


One of the most effective approaches for calming a child is to try calming breathing techniques. However, in the middle of sensory overload, a child will likely not be able to attempt to slow their breath. Remembering that reasoning is impossible, so this is very unlikely. That is the time to start the exercises yourself. It is amazing how your loud but controlled and calm breathing can influence such a situation! You can do a loud but calm deep breaths – loud and long. Their breathing and body will sync with this and will help you stay calm.


Enteroception is the awareness of what you feel inside your own body – some children have impaired Enteroception. This is emotions and feelings and any changes taking place within the body. Each child will have their own struggles.


Here are a few activities that will cover some of the major problems and offer some help:

  • Kids Yoga

  • Mindfulness Emotion Matching Games – Cut-out pictures in magazines or create emotion cards. Have the child match the emotions to the card.

  • Breathing exercises – Pay special attention to what they can feel in their body. You can let do activities like smelling flowers/blowing out candles – keep it fun!

  • Age dependant – Social stories in pictures can be useful.

  • How emotions feel – Track their emotions during the day and how emotions can make them feel. Use relevant facial expressions.

  • Heavy work activities – Pushing walls, yoga stand and pull sticks, weighted blankets etc.

Now for the parent, here are a couple of hints that may help you survive a sensory meltdown:


Remind yourself that your child is in fight or flight and no longer can use reason or logic. Your child is now operating out of the emotional center of the brain and most likely cannot understand you. The best thing you can do is to stay calm and keep them safe and let it pass.


This situation will cause your blood pressure to rise and your frustration level to shorten as a result. Taking repetitive deep breaths can relax your body's muscles. It is the quickest way to calm your body down and decrease the release of stress hormones.


Slow and calm breaths will allow you to continue thinking from the logical part of your brain and not from the brain's emotional center, where a child with a meltdown is coming from. Both of you in this part of the brain will not help either of you. Breathe in from your nose and out through your mouth. Nice long slow breaths out.


One of the most important thing is consistency. Try to respond in the same way each time so that the young person can know what will happen if they behave in certain ways. It is important to set limits and boundaries around certain dangerous behaviors and that the young person knows what they are. Not all behaviors are sensory. Some are just children testing to see what they can do. Children will benefit from having healthy boundaries.


Lastly, do not forget to celebrate when the child manages to tolerate a situation for the first time or attempts to self-manage their behavior. Cut yourself some slack. You are doing the best you can. Recognize that too – well done.


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Read more from Susan!

Susan Watson, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Susan Watson specializes in working worldwide with all ages experiencing Anxiety, Emotions, and Trauma, in a content freestyle, so that no talking really needs to occur unless wanted. Working with feelings and emotions within the body, Susan releases the emotional connection of past experiences. She teaches self-help tools to help others live their best life, the life that is deserved. Susan supports individuals, groups, and the workplace with her Be Your Own Empowered Hero workshops, which were introduced as a measure to reduce the risk of future issues with mental and emotional health.

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