Managing Tantrums and Meltdowns — Things Unsaid

Dave Jennings
Feb 7 · 6 min read

What does a Tantrum or Meltdown Look Like

Tantrums are frustrating. They stem from being told no or feeling like we don’t understand what our son wants. For us, we get the quivering lip, which is adorable by the way, he’ll go limp or not put down something we’ve asked him to.

If he’s mad enough he’ll throw something, sometimes he’ll pick that something up and throw it again. He wants to make sure we understand that he is not happy. On rare occasions, I’ll get a light tap or a tight squeeze showing his displeasure.

We really try to discourage any unwanted behavior like hitting or throwing. While it can be amusing now that he’s our little guy, it won’t be so cute when he’s our little man. We really try to focus on communicating and following through with promises to eliminate these behaviors.

Meltdowns are devastating. They stem from sensory overload and exhaustion. At their worst, they can last hours. This is when he becomes inconsolable and just cries and screams. Some parents see their child self-harm during these fits. It’s hard to watch your kid suffer while feeling helpless to make it stop.

When he was younger our son would start crying. We would turn down the lights, put on his favorite shows, tickle his feet and hold him for hours. He’d sob the entire time. It’s a challenging experience that special needs parents know all too well.

What Triggers a Meltdown

I wish I had an easy answer as to why the meltdowns happen. We’ve never really been able to pinpoint the cause. It happens much less now that he’s getting older. We thought maybe it was the loud, busy rooms that bothered him.

We would try going out to restaurants at less busy times. But eventually, we’d end up in a crowded room for an extended period of time and he’d be fine. We thought, maybe it was loud or busy rooms with lots of TVs and lights.

The same situation, we’d avoid for a while but in time we’d end up a sports bar or restaurant and he’d be fine. We did notice that his tolerance for those environments was lower. By the end of the meal, he’d be doing his head shaking stim telling us he was done. But he didn’t meltdown.

We’ve concluded that it’s a mix of all these things. A perfect storm of being tired, hungry, and irritable while in a busy, loud room. As he gets older his tolerance improves. He can tell us when he’s not happy for the most part. We can try to read his emotions too in order to avoid a meltdown.

Napping Meltdowns

I thought I’d wedge in this experience we had with our son for about a year. It was an interesting phenomenon that would occur only after a midday nap. Out of the blue, right when we were transitioning away from naps altogether, he would occasionally doze off.

No matter how long we let him sleep, when he woke up, he was in meltdown mode. This happened 100% of the time. He’d fall asleep playing, it would be time for dinner and boom, meltdown. Dinner would have to wait until we handled it. Two hours of Dora in the dark, soothing our sobbing boy. It was the most bizarre thing.

I watched YouTube videos of this happening with other children with Autism with no explanation. We asked his physician who thought maybe he was waking up mid-sleep cycle and was still asleep. That was as good a guess as any but there were times where I’d wake him up for bath time.

He’d sit through the bath, crying like the water was hurting him. This never happened in the morning, only during naps. We still have no clue what that was about and he grew out of it. If anyone knows what could’ve been happening I’m all ears.

Keeping My Calm When it Spirals Out of Control

When you’re tired and stressed keeping your calm seems almost impossible. But it’s one of the most important things when dealing with an upset child. I’ve seen it too many times where the parent just runs out of steam. One of the most frustrating things for me is the lack of control over their behavior.

When I find that I’m at the point when my voice is about to raise I try to stop and think. Be conscious at the moment and take a deep breath. I have to accept that I cannot control this and think of how I can mitigate the situation.

If we’re out at a restaurant or show, I take him and I leave. I usually don’t go home, the rest of the family is still there. But I’ve removed us from prying eyes and hopefully, we don’t disrupt someone else’s evening. We’ve sat in front of places for an hour before. If it’s an option I’ll go and get in our van. The van’s a familiar place that’s calming for both of us.

If possible we’ll try to go back in or finish a meal, but usually, it’s a done deal. I know some parents that just leave the kid at home or leave the moment things turn south. For them, that is how they cope with it. My hope is that, as he gets older, we can get ahead of tantrums and meltdowns.

Stopping Them Before they Start

I’m finding that communication is key to getting in front of tantrums and meltdowns. Ever since we started PEC cards and got his augmentative device we’ve been able to defuse meltdowns early. Once our son feels he can’t get his point across he goes off script and tries any sign. It just makes him angrier when we don’t get it.

Watching for signs of exhaustion or sickness are also big indicators for us. If he just doesn’t seem like himself we’ll try to meet his needs quickly. Not push him too hard. If we get to a restaurant that is too busy and has a 20 min wait or longer we may choose to go somewhere else depending on his mood.

When we’re coming up on triggering situations we try our best to explain what’s going to happen. A good example of this is if we need to run by the house while out on errands. If we pull into our driveway he expects that we are staying home. When we pull back out, he loses it. Same thing with going in and out of the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

We’ll go into detail, “we need to stop by the house, we will not be getting out of the car, we are going to the store next.” It’s helped some, he may not be happy about it but the tears don’t show up every time now.

Discipline Vs Tantrums

Here is where things get tricky for us. When you yell at him or try to tell him no he goes into a tantrum. Some days we don’t have the strength and will let it go. But he needs to learn, he can’t always get his way.

Asking him to wait is our big struggle currently. If we just ate a meal, he might want goldfish. We tell him he has to wait an hour and that will trigger him. Lately, we try to explain and then put him in his room until he calms down.

We’ve always tried to discipline him the same way we do with our other two, but his reactions make it challenging.


There is nothing fun about tantrums or meltdowns but we do our best to manage. If you happen to see a parent dealing with this out in the world try to be understanding. If you see me red-faced and yelling outside of Outback, remind me to calm down.

Most parents deal with this when their kiddos are toddlers. Some of us will always have this to worry about. Regardless, we love our little ones even if they can ruin a perfectly good dinner out.

How do you manage tantrums with your children?

Originally published at on February 7, 2020.

Dave Jennings

Written by

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