Managing Meltdowns and Deregulation in Lockdown (and Beyond)

Many states are now entering their second full month of lockdown, and we’re all struggling to adjust to this new way of life. Distance learning, working from home, sheltering in place with your family–it’s a lot to take in for anyone, and it can be especially disruptive and upsetting for children with sensory sensitivities or other developmental issues.

Below are some tips to identify when your child is deregulated and manage sensory-related meltdowns. While these strategies have worked well for our families, remember there is no single schedule or process that works for everyone, and no one knows your child better than you. Don’t be afraid to go with whatever works for your family.

Signs your child is deregulated:

  • Appears excessively energetic, manic, or slap-happy
  • Appears aloof or distracted; fidgets or spaces out constantly
  • Has a heightened sensitivity to sensory input, such as light or sound
  • Has disproportionate or extreme reactions to stimulation or stress
  • Regresses into past behaviors when stimulated (meltdowns, thumb sucking, etc.)

Deescalate tantrums and meltdowns.

  • Meet aggression with empathy and compassion. Start by validating your child’s feelings–not by telling her how she should be feeling or how you feel.
  • Create a “safe space” away from the rest of the family where your child can go to calm down until she’s ready to talk. Be clear that time in this space is not a punishment.
  • Allow time for the “fight or flight” response to work itself out of the body before trying to have a conversation (usually about 20 minutes).
  • Don’t expect your child to “fix” the issue right away. Discuss how you can work together to tackle this problem in the future, give her time to process, and allow her to try again.
  • Come up with a “safe word” or gesture your child can use to indicate she’s becoming frustrated or upset. When she does use it, make sure to step back and allow her to calm down before continuing the conversation.
  • If needed, use a social story to help your child identify her own feelings and understand the feelings of others. (Pop culture references, like the movie Inside Out, are also good.)

 

Look for triggers in your environment.

  • Monitor your child’s use of electronics, keeping in mind that signs of deregulation can manifest as late as 30-90 minutes after screen time has stopped.
  • Be mindful of how many activities your child’s doing each day, including Zoom calls. Even if she enjoys these activities, too many transitions can be stressful and exhausting.
  • Make sure your child is physically active. Sensory diets have been shown to help improve concentration, alertness, and calmness in children with sensory issues.
  • Avoid teasing, nagging, or other antagonistic behaviors that might result in an outsized reaction. Make sure siblings have time apart.
  • Children react to how parents manage stress. Make time to care for yourself–even though it’s hard–and demonstrate healthy ways to manage stress and talk about feeling deregulated. (“Mommy’s a little overwhelmed right now. My brain feels scrambled, and I need a break.”)

Create good transition habits.

  • Allow 10-20 minutes of transition time between each activity if at all possible. Avoid multitasking during this time.
  • Help your child come up with a transition ritual. This can include screen time, quiet time, or any number of activities that will help her regulate and ramp up to the next task.
  • Remember, too many transitions can be exhausting and lead to meltdowns. Be aware of how many activities your child’s doing in a given day and look for signs of deregulation.

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