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Understanding the Cycle of a Meltdown

In past articles I have discussed the “whole-person” view of childcare and education and provided five tools to use with children experiencing a meltdown or “tantrum.” While each of these tools are essential to have at the ready, it is also important to know when to use each one. Using a “right” tool at the wrong time can actually increase the emotional response of the child. Recognizing the cycle of a meltdown, and the emotional and mental state of a child within that cycle is key to knowing which tool to use.

Researchers and caregivers who work with children on the autism spectrum are most likely to track the patterns of a meltdown; however, identifying the cycle of a meltdown can be helpful for all children. Researchers have even identified specific vocal patterns in children who are in emotional distress and can use these patterns to chart the cycle of a meltdown. Understanding this basic cycle and the tools to use during each part of the cycle can help teachers and caregivers better understand and help the children in their care.

The Rumbling Phase (also referred to as the Trigger and Agitation Phases)

During the Rumbling phase, a child begins developing an emotional response. The trigger can be a single incident large enough to provoke a response or a series of smaller incidents that have built up over time. The child becomes agitated, and the behaviors displayed are restlessness, unfocused attention, discomfort and initial distress. Students may choose to withdraw from others, or if they do engage, they may be more argumentative and combative.

When children are in this beginning agitation stage, a teacher who is able to recognize the signs can start to help the child process their feelings and manage the responses more successfully than if the child escalates into the next stage. However, emotional literacy tools should only be used in the beginning of the rumbling stage. Once a child begins escalating, having them analyze their feelings can cause more harm than good.

Removing the child from their current environment in a friendly and kind way, such as offering an opportunity to run an errand or work on a special project, can help the child disassociate from the problem and regain emotional and mental clarity. These activities also offer the child to connect with and engage their whole-body Similarly, providing a safe space that is warm and comforting for the child to calm down can also help. It may also be helpful to encourage the child to drink lots of water to help dilute the cortisol that is increasing in their system.

The Rage Phase (also referred to as Acceleration and Peak Phases)

Like the title suggests, the rage phase is the point in the cycle when the child is most inconsolable. They are emotionally distressed, and it can seem like the slightest thing can set them off. During this time, they are in overdrive and their minds and emotions are overloaded. Children who are in the acceleration and peak phases may exhibit aggressive behaviors, extreme crying, or even self-harm. Unfortunately, a lot of well-meaning teachers and parents try to talk with or “reason with” the child at this point, trying to get them to calm down. They encourage the child to use tools such as “take deep breaths” and “calm your breathing, ” or even try to get the child to identify what they are feeling.

While emotional literacy and coping mechanisms are extremely important for children to learn, most children are incapable of reasoning when they are in the peak of their cycle. Cortisol levels have spiked, and the brain is overwhelmed with the different physical and emotional stimuli it has to process. Even a child’s breathing is affected, becoming more shallow and ragged. Adults should refrain from trying to negotiate or teach during these moments. At times, it may be prudent to completely disengage.

The best strategy is to help the child relocate to their safety space so that they can regain their composure away from other children. The safety space helps them preserve some of their dignity, decreases the stimuli, and allows teachers focus on the safety of all the students and adults. A child’s safety space should always be used in a non-punitive way as it is solely a calming space for children to help them disengage and recompose.

The Recovery Phase (also known as De-escalation and Recovery)

When you hear a child take a deep breath followed by a couple of smaller gasping breaths, and then another deep breath, they are most likely entering the de-escalation and recovery phases. As children de-escalate, their bodies and minds are physically recovering from the strain of their meltdown. Children can be more fatigued and clingy, needing the physical calming presence of a trusted adult. They may also ask for water, as their bodies inherently recognize the need to help reduce the cortisol pumping through their veins. After a peak phase, cortisol can take up to 1-5 hours to go back to normal levels. Water helps speed the return.

If a child has the energy, help them find a specific whole-body task. They are now better equipped to disengage from the problem and environment, and focusing on a new task can speed recovery. During the recovery phase though, avoid mentioning the meltdown or trying to incorporate self-help tools and reflection. Children may feel shame or fear about the event, or even temporary memory loss. Reflection can occur once a child has gained some distance from the event.

The Calm Phase

The calm phase occurs outside of meltdowns, either right before the rumbling stage or after a child is completely calmed and disengaged from the triggers of the meltdown. The calm phase is the ideal time to use reflection and emotional literacy techniques. These can come in a variety of forms, from having the child actively reflect on how they were feeling to reading a story about a character who went through something similar to the child (this is especially helpful if the child is not able to recognize or identify their emotions and behaviors yet). During the calm phase, caregivers can also help children learn how to handle conflict and manage their emotions in appropriate ways, creating “action plans” that can be put into place during the rumbling phase.

Adult responses have a lot to do with how a child escalates, and sometimes the best-intentioned responses only contribute to a child’s emotional crisis. Because the right actions, occurring during the wrong times can increase the distress of the child, being able to understand and recognize the phases of a meltdown is essential for adults wishing to understand and help a child through their distress.


Ahnert, L., Gunnar, M. R., Lamb, M. E., & Barthel, M. (2004). Transition to Child Care: Associations With Infant-Mother Attachment, Infant Negative Emotion, and Cortisol Elevations. Child Development,75(3), 639-650. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00698.x

Myles, B. S. (2004, October 1). The Cycle of Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns. Retrieved from

Myles, B. S., & Hubbard, A. (n.d.). The Cycle of Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns in Children and Youth with Asperger Syndrome, High- Functioning Autism, and Related Disabilities. Retrieved from Cycle of Tantrums.pdf.

Nelson, J., Lott, L., & Glenn, H. S. (n.d.). Temper Tantrums. Retrieved from

Pratt, T. (2017, October 2). Phases of Acting Out Behavior. Retrieved from

Vedantam, S. (2011, December 5). What's Behind a Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct the Screams. Retrieved from

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