ABA for Tantrums and Meltdowns

Navigating the unique challenges of parenting is an intricate dance, especially when your child has autism. All children are prone to tantrums and meltdowns, but they may be more common for autistic children.

In this journey, understanding is the compass, and empathy is the North Star. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the nuanced world of dealing with kids’ tantrums and meltdowns to ensure a positive outcome for all parties involved.

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, please feel free to check out the wide range of services offered by Fast Track ABA Center, and don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.

What’s a Meltdown?

A meltdown – distinct from a temper tantrum – is a profound reaction to an overwhelming situation, where control over behavior is temporarily lost. 

The manifestations can range from verbal outbursts and shouting to physical aggression like kicking and hitting. 

Recognizing the signs – which are often referred to as precursors or rumblings – provides a crucial window of opportunity to intervene before a meltdown unfolds completely.

Anticipating a Meltdown

The antecedent, or trigger preceding the behavior, plays a pivotal role. Identifying the specific precursor to your child’s meltdown is essential, and often, these are linked to sensory sensitivities or disruptions in routine. 

For instance, a change in routine or exposure to loud noises might act as catalysts. Acknowledging and understanding these triggers become the compass for proactive parenting, allowing for preparation and potentially averting meltdowns altogether.

ABA for Tantrums and Meltdowns Crying

How to Identify Causes of a Meltdown

Understanding the root causes of meltdowns is akin to deciphering a unique code for each child on the autism spectrum. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the antecedent – what precedes the behavior – takes center stage.
Recognizing these antecedents helps unravel the mystery behind the triggers for kids’ tantrums and meltdowns.

Pattern Identification

The first step involves keen observation and identification of patterns. What environmental factors or changes might be acting as precursors? 

If your child exhibits sensory sensitivities, such as aversion to loud noises or discomfort with bright lights, being attuned to these preferences is crucial.

Preferred routines, favorite foods, and beloved toys can be allies that help bring comfort and stability to your child’s world.

Record Circumstances

Consider recording the circumstances surrounding each meltdown. Note the time, location, people involved, and the child’s activities before and after the meltdown. 

This meticulous tracking can reveal patterns over time, offering valuable data for understanding and addressing triggers. 

Armed with this knowledge, the caregiver could proactively address the issue by mitigating the noise, such as closing the toilet seat before flushing.

This process of elimination and observation helps parents pinpoint specific triggers for their kids’ tantrums and meltdowns.

In essence, proactive record-keeping and attentiveness to your child’s unique sensory sensitivities and routine preferences pave the way for a deeper understanding of what may lead to meltdowns. This knowledge becomes a powerful tool in crafting strategies to minimize triggers and create a supportive environment for your child.

Signs of a

Understanding the signs that precede a meltdown is akin to deciphering a unique language spoken by children on the autism spectrum. 

These signs, or precursors, can manifest in various ways, providing essential cues for caregivers to intervene and support their children effectively.

ABA for Tantrums and Meltdowns at the crib
ABA for Tantrums and Meltdowns for 7 months


  • Pacing and shaking: A child might exhibit restlessness, pacing back and forth, or shaking as an outward manifestation of building distress.
  • Withdrawing: Social withdrawal is a common sign, with the child disengaging from their surroundings or retreating into themselves.
  • Yelling and loud outbursts: Increased vocalization, yelling, or loud outbursts may signal escalating stress, offering a visible warning sign.

Sensory Signs

  • Covering of the ears: Heightened sensitivity to auditory stimuli may lead to the child covering their ears as a defensive response.
  • Increased self-stimulatory behavior: Children with developmental disabilities may engage in repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors as a way to cope with sensory overload.
  • Self-injurious behavior: In extreme cases, sensory overwhelm can lead to self-injurious behaviors as a desperate attempt to regulate sensory input.

Emotional Signs

  • Crying and screaming: Emotional distress often manifests as crying or screaming, reflecting the child’s struggle to manage overwhelming feelings.
  • Refusal to interact: A child on the verge of a meltdown may refuse to engage or interact, signaling their need for emotional space.
  • Withdrawal: Emotional withdrawal, akin to behavioral withdrawal, indicates the child’s internal struggle with escalating emotions.

Physical Signs

  • Hitting and rocking: Physical aggression towards oneself or objects, such as hitting or rocking, may be a physical outlet for the overwhelming emotions.
  • Crying: While emotional, crying also has physical implications, representing the child’s physiological response to stress.
  • Changes in body language: Observing alterations in body language, like tense postures or clenched fists, can offer insights into the physical toll of distress.

Communication Signs

  • Difficulty expressing emotions: Children on the spectrum may face challenges in articulating their emotions verbally, leading to frustration and increased distress.
  • Delayed response: Processing emotions and external stimuli may take additional time for them, resulting in delayed responses during potential meltdown situations.
  • Non-verbal communication: Paying attention to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions or gestures, can provide valuable insights into the child’s emotional state.

How to Deal With a Meltdown

Dealing with kids’ tantrums and meltdowns requires a multifaceted approach, rooted in understanding triggers and proactively anticipating potential meltdown situations.

Step 1: Be Patient, Remain Calm, and Create a Safe Space

Patience becomes a cornerstone in navigating meltdowns, and remaining calm in the face of escalating emotions is challenging but essential. Creating a safe space involves not only physical safety but also emotional security. 

Ensure sharp objects are out of reach, and the environment is free from potential harm. Clear the area of excessive stimuli, such as people, noises, and lights, offering the child a chance to reduce sensory input.

Step 2: Avoid Nagging and Provide Understanding

Resist the urge to lecture or nag during a meltdown. Instead, focus on providing understanding and support. Recognize that these children are not misbehaving; they are grappling with overwhelming emotions beyond their control. 

Focus on communicating calmly and neutrally, avoiding any expressions of frustration that might intensify their feelings.

Step 3: Use Calming Sensory Items if Available

Incorporate calming sensory items to soothe the child. Stress balls, fidget toys, weighted blankets, or noise-canceling headphones can serve as effective tools to reduce sensory input. 

Acknowledge and utilize known sensory preferences – some children may benefit from gentle squeezes or pats to provide a calming sensory experience.

Step 4: Allow Expression and Encourage Communication

Encourage the child to express their emotions, either verbally or through alternative communication methods. Be patient, recognizing that it may take time for them to respond. 

Keeping your tone neutral and calm is essential to prevent exacerbating their overwhelming feelings. Communication during a meltdown aims to provide an outlet for the child to express themselves rather than correcting their behavior.

Step 5: Record and Analyze Meltdown Data

For cases where triggers are unclear, maintain a record of when and where meltdowns occur. Analyzing this data over time can reveal patterns and help identify potential triggers, allowing caregivers to develop targeted strategies.

What NOT to Do During a Meltdown

During kids’ tantrums and meltdowns, it’s crucial to avoid actions that may intensify the child’s distress. 

Patience, understanding, and creating a supportive environment are key elements in navigating these challenging moments with compassion and effectiveness.

Avoid Lectures and Criticism

During a meltdown, it’s crucial to resist the temptation to lecture or criticize the child. 

Criticizing their behavior or telling them what they should or should not do can escalate the situation further. Meltdowns are not deliberate acts of defiance; instead, they stem from a struggle to cope with overwhelming emotions.

Refrain from Overstimulation

Adding to the sensory overload can exacerbate a meltdown. Avoid introducing new stimuli, loud noises, or bright lights during this critical moment. 

Overstimulation can prolong the episode, making it harder for the child to regain control. Creating a calm and quiet environment is essential to facilitate the child’s emotional regulation.

Don't Restrict Movement Unnecessarily

While your child’s safety is paramount, unnecessarily restricting their movement may intensify their distress – sharp and sudden restrictions can escalate the situation. 

Instead, focus on creating a safe space and removing any potential hazards, allowing the child some freedom within defined boundaries.

ABA for Tantrums and Meltdowns Father Holding Baby
ABA for Tantrums and Meltdowns Japanese Girl.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with kids’ tantrums and meltdowns involves a delicate balance of understanding, patience, and proactive intervention. 

Each child’s experience is unique, requiring an approach that encompasses both soothing techniques and long-term strategies for minimizing triggers. 

By fostering an environment of empathy and support, caregivers can navigate meltdowns with resilience and compassion. 

At Fast Track ABA Center, we specialize in teaching children with autism valuable life skills and providing support for parents and caregivers to help them navigate difficult obstacles like meltdowns. 

Contact us any time for more information about our services and teaching strategies – we look forward to hearing from you!