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Meltdowns, Tantrums, and Outbursts - The Escalation Cycle and Why Connection Comes First

Meltdowns, tantrums and outbursts, oh my! We’ve all been there! You are in the middle of Target and your child falls to the floor screaming or you are trying to rush out of the house and your little one decides now is the time to "throw a tantrum." We've heard them all and hear about them often because this is normal -- not just just normal, but developmentally appropriate of children. Being told something is “normal” is not meant to diminish the stress it causes you as a parent. We get it and know it is hard, so that is why we are here to support you! At Hearts Connected we approach families seeking behavioral support for their children with education first, so they can better understand the escalation cycle and developmental reasons behind their chid’s behavior. Once we understand something better, we can feel more in control of it!

What is the escalation cycle? It is the pattern that occurs before, during, and after a meltdown or tantrum. When a child is becoming escalated, there is always a trigger first. Children do not become “upset for no reason.” The trigger could be not getting enough sleep, given food they did not want, a sibling throwing a toy at them, or being asked to do something they do not want to do. After a trigger, agitation develops, acceleration of emotions and nervous system dysregulation, and then the peak of the tantrum. After the peak of a tantrum, a child will begin to de-escalate and often become fatigued before fully recovering. Many parents want to skip the peak, but before we can shorten the escalation cycle, we must first come from a place of understanding and empathy for a child’s triggers and emotions that cause the escalation cycle in the first place.

Children are going through very significant developmental changes cognitively, socially, psychologically, and emotionally. Children do not have the cognitive ability to communicate their emotions with words like adults do. Children do not have the skills to regulate their emotions all on their own all of the time. And lastly, children do not have the problem-solving skills and abstract awareness to predict, change, and work through problems all on their own like adults. This is not to say that children are not capable of any of these things at all, but they are currently developing these skills and it is our role as adults to guide, teach, and support them as they are building these skills.

One of the biggest questions we get from parents is “but what do I do when my child will not calm down?” This stage is referring to the peak of a meltdown, so to answer this, let's first focus on the beginning of the escalation cycle. The more familiar one becomes with the entire cycle as a whole, the better a parent can get at not only managing a tantrum, but preventing them the peak of a tantrum as well! First, we have to start practicing looking out for cues of a child’s agitation, so we can intervene before the escalation continues. Some common cues are whining, not willing to make a choice, grunting, frowning, and looking away and turning body away. By learning a child’s agitation cues, we can better implement and facilitate coping skills and problem solving before a child escalates completely. This is the best period of time to facilitate coping skills or redirection with a child.

If the coping skills, emotional support, and redirection are not effective during the agitation stage, or your child peaks before a parent recognizes any trigger or signs of agitation, connection comes first and of the utmost priority! When a child is at the peak of their tantrum, their nervous system is completely dysregulated and their prefrontal cortex (in charge of problem solving, decision making, and emotional regulation) is offline. In this moment, they are simply needing connection and co-regulation. A child’s most basic needs, love and safety, are needing to be validated and supported during this time. What does connection with a child look like during the peak of a tantrum?

Connection looks like getting on your child’s level. Connection is speaking softly, so your child does not feel threatened. Connection is holding or hugging your child while you as the parent take slow deep breaths so your child can co-regulate and “borrow” your calm. Connection is pausing and taking a moment to regulate your own emotions and taking a step back to understand the situation from your child’s perspective before responding. Connection is not meant to be mistaken for passivity or lack of action to “control” a child’s behavior. It is an active, calming, and loving response that allows your child’s nervous system to regulate, so they are able to feel safe in their emotions and bodies again, re-engage, and problem solve with you.

If you are needing support with learning your child’s agitation cues and/or various coping skills or behavior redirection to utilize before their tantrum's peak, reach out to us for support. We are here to educate you, empower you as a parent, and support your child’s specific behavioral needs so they can continue to grow and thrive