8 Tips to Diffuse a Sensory Meltdown

by Shayna Katzman

8 Tips to Diffuse a Sensory Meltdown

Everyone has been there. Your child is on the floor kicking and screaming while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. To everyone else, it looks like he’s having a tantrum, but you know it’s a sensory meltdown. Strangers start staring and some start giving their own two-cents. 

“I never allowed my child to act like that in public.” Or “he deserves a good spanking.”

But what those people don’t understand is that your child is having a neurological response. His nervous system is overwhelmed and this meltdown has nothing to do with behavioral issues.

What Is a Sensory Meltdown?

We absorb what happening in the world around us through our senses. We feel the heat of the sun on our skin, and the smell of pastries when we walk by a bakery. Our brain takes this information and filters it according to importance.

However, for those with a sensory processing disorder (SPD), this process is difficult. Their brain has a hard time organizing sensory information, leaving them overwhelmed. The lights may be too bright or the tag on their shirt is itchy. They pick up on every little sensory input that your brain may categorize as not important. Their “fight or flight” response kicks in, and before no time, your child is in full meltdown mode.

Some children may kick, scream, run away, or even try to hurt themselves. Some children react the opposite. They may become quiet and fall asleep. Each type of sensory meltdown is specific to that child.

As a new SPD parent or even a veteran, it can be pretty scary watching your child have a meltdown. Although sensory meltdowns are inevitable for SPD children, there are ways to manage them.

1. Do Not Treat the Meltdown as A Behavioral Issue

This is probably the most important concept to remember. Temper tantrums are behavioral outbursts with a goal in mind, while sensory meltdowns are neurological.

A child could have a temper tantrum for many reasons. Maybe they want to watch TV for 10 more minutes or they want more attention from you. Screaming and crying, although not appropriate, is a way for the child to express his feelings. The child has control over his actions, and once he gets what he wants, the tantrum usually stops.

However, a child who is having a sensory meltdown does not have control. Their body is in a “fight or flight” response and they don’t have a goal in mind. Their senses are overwhelmed and a sensory meltdown is a symptom of that.

2. Understand Why Your Child Is Having a Sensory Meltdown

Maybe the lights are too bright, or there are too many people talking. Maybe there was a change in routine at the last minute, or your child is dehydrated. Knowing the cause of the meltdown will help you manage it better, as well as avoid future meltdowns.

3. Try to Stay Calm

Getting upset is perceived as aggressive behavior. It also adds to your child’s sensory overload. Try speaking to your child in a calm, soft voice.

But don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember that you are a SPD parent, not superwoman. Staying calm during a meltdown can be really hard, but with time and practice, you’ll learn how.

4. Remove Dangerous Objects

When your child is having a meltdown, they do not have control. Try taking them to a safe, open space and remove all objects such as glass cups, silverware, or scissors. Just to be safe, monitor your child until the meltdown is over.

5. Have an “Emergency Sensory Meltdown Kit”

This is especially useful when your child is in an unfamiliar environment. Some ideas for a meltdown kit are:

• Noise canceling headphones
• Your child’s favorite toy or stuffed animal
• Their favorite snack
• Change of clean clothes

6. Use a Weighted Blanket

Designed to weigh 10% of your child’s body weight, weighted blankets put gentle pressure on your child’s sensory receptors.

This Deep Pressure Therapy calms the nervous system by triggering the release of serotonin and dopamine. These “happy hormones” not only elevate mood, but give your child’s brain the chance to organize sensory input.

Weighted blankets also improve spatial awareness by providing proprioceptive input. The weight of the blanket allows their child to feel their movements, giving them a better understanding of the location of their body.

7. Watch What They Eat

Some children are extra sensitive to gluten, while others are sensitive to sugar. Pay attention to how your child acts after eating certain foods. This will give you a better understanding to which foods your child should avoid.

Also, make sure that your child is drinking enough water throughout the day. Dehydration exhausts the body and is a cause of sensory meltdowns.

8. Give Them Time to Recover

A sensory meltdown is very exhausting so your child will need time to recuperate. Whether they are in a sensory swing, or under a weighted blanket, let them come out of their retreat by themselves. Their nervous system will know when they are ready to socialize again.

If you any questions or tips of your own, let us know in the comments below!

Shayna Katzman
Shayna Katzman


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