Surviving Meltdowns: Supporting Children with Language Disorders During Breakdowns

Parents often tell me about the challenges they face when helping their child through a meltdown. It’s difficult to know how to help when you can’t figure out why your child is upset to begin with. Moreover, it can be discouraging when all your efforts to diffuse a situation seem to fail.

Children with speech and language difficulties often display frustration when they cannot effectively express themselves. Frustration can result in even less effective communication, which ultimately exacerbates the problem; it’s far more difficult to communicate when our emotions are heightened, whether through anxiety, fear, frustration or anger. This presents a problem for children with communication disorders, who are often less able to convey their needs in moments when they need to the most.

If you’re a parent and this issue sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Here are strategies I often encourage families to try when helping their child through a meltdown.

Strategies To Help Your Child Communicate During A Meltdown:

Use a calm voice: You may feel as frustrated as your child looks, but do your best to keep your response calm, consistent and neutral. Your tone will convey a message of safety to your child.

Use simple language: Your child may have more difficulty processing incoming language during a meltdown, so it’s important to keep you language simple. Simple language will be easier for your child to process. Instead of saying “John, you need to stop crying and put your shoes on because now it’s time to go home,” try using concise phrases such as “shoes on” or “first shoes, then go home.”

Be repetitive and consistent: It’s okay to use the same phrase over and over again. If your child doesn’t respond to your directions the first time (e.g. “put shoes on”), it’s temping to rephrase the directions or present a new idea entirely. (“Put shoes on… it’s time to tie your shoes now… will you please put socks and shoes on?… okay, then let’s put your coat on first and then we can put your shoes on.”) Before we know it, our language is complex and our child may not be following. So instead, stick with the original plan. The repetition will help your child better process the direction (e.g. “shoes on… shoes on please… shoes on”).

Use visual support: Visual support will give your child an additional avenue for processing incoming language. I am a huge fan of using visual schedules to prepare children for transitions ahead of time. For example, you might draw a picture of shoes, coat and car, and point to each picture while you verbalize, “first shoes on, then coat on, then go home.”. You can also use cues in your environment, such as pointing to objects as you name them (e.g. “put shoes on!” while pointing to the shoes).

Present choices: Children like to feel a sense of control. I find that choices are a great way to give children that control while still steering them towards the final goal. I would limit the options to two choices (e.g. “Do you want shoes or coat?”).

Make things concrete: Use concrete ways to count down during a transition, and set the expectations ahead of time. For example, if your child doesn’t want to stop playing with their toy car, tell them, “Three more turns! Then we’re all done.” You might draw three cars, and cross each car off during each turn. You can also count to 10, or use a visual timer. Try to avoid more abstract limits, such as “five more minutes” or “almost time to stop.” Young children might not understand these concepts, and will likely feel caught off guard when five minutes are up.

Find any opportunity to encourage or praise: Children love to be praised! Try to create opportunities for your child to earn praise, even in the midst of a tough moment. By doing this, you are giving them an opportunity to turn the situation around. For example, if your child doesn’t want to clean up her toys, help her by placing a toy in her hand, and holding the toy box close by. If she drops the toy in, celebrate by saying, “Yay! Wow, you are cleaning up. Good cleaning up!”

Validate your child’s feelings: Let your child know that you heard him by repeating back what he says. You might say things like, “I heard you. I know you want more cars. It’s time to clean up now.”

Use songs to help transitions: I find that children respond very well to singing, as songs are calming, rhythmical, and routine. If your child has difficulty during transitions, then sing the “Clean Up Song” every time you begin to clean up. In case you don’t know this one, here you go: “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.”