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What Do You Do in the Middle of an Adolescent Meltdown?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

In our article  “What Causes Adolescent Meltdowns? ” we shared that adolescents with oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), conduct disorder, sensory processing disorder, or other behavioral issues can have frequent meltdowns or temper tantrums. So can teens with depression, anxiety, panic disorder, emotion dysregulation, and other mental health issues.

Dr. Ilyssa Bass, PhD, an expert on child and adolescent behavioral issues, advises parents to predict (and thus prevent) these temper tantrums by looking for certain triggers (hunger, overstimulation, etc.) in their children. However, in the middle of a meltdown, it may be very hard to think of anything other than how to survive this crisis.

So what do you do when your teenager is smack in the middle of a meltdown?

Step One: Have a Plan

First, you need a Meltdown Plan.

“If you don’t have a meltdown plan, you are much more likely to end up in fight, flight, or freeze mode,” Dr. Bass says.

That’s not advisable. You don’t want to get into a shouting match with your adolescent, but you also don’t want to just stand there. You need a consistent, predictable, logical way to deal with meltdowns – and so does your teen.

So, come up with this plan in a quiet moment, preferably when your adolescent is at school or away – not while the meltdown is happening.

The Elements of a Meltdown Plan

Your plan should consider:

  • What you want to do with the adolescent having the meltdown
  • What you want to do with your other children (if applicable)
  • What you want to do with yourself

When creating your plan, Dr. Bass advises that the number-one consideration should always be safety. Safety for the child, safety for the other children, and safety for you and your family.  If your teen typically throws things or becomes aggressive, where will you go to keep yourself and your other family members safe? If your teen starts cursing or verbally abusing you, how will you make sure you don’t react emotionally? Which room in your house will be the safety room for you and the rest of your family? Or, is there someone who can come over on a minute’s notice to take your other kids outside?

If your adolescent’s meltdowns aren’t typically violent, you may not be worried about safety – just your mental wellbeing. If your child cries for hours on end and rolls around on the floor, there may be no need to escape to another room. Your plan may consist of going immediately to the couch with a book, a magazine, or anything else that will help you not engage with your child – and staying out of their way while their emotion runs its course.

Talk over the plan with your spouse and make sure they’re is on board with it. If they have any other suggestions to make, incorporate them if you think they’ll help.

Communicate the Plan

At a quiet time, when your adolescent is cheerful or pleasant, communicate the meltdown plan to them. Even better, have them offer suggestions on how to deal with their meltdown. Your tone of voice should be nonjudgmental and non-accusatory.

You can start off the script with:

“Meltdowns happen. I just want to come up with a plan on how to deal with it when it does.”

Then, go over your plan with them, including what exactly you’ll be doing when the meltdown starts and where the other siblings will be going (if applicable).

How to React in The Middle Of The Meltdown

Let’s say the meltdown has started. Everyone is in a safe place.

But now what do you actually do?

Dr. Bass has very simple advice:

Stay out of it. And stay calm.

“You don’t have to do anything to make a meltdown stop. A meltdown is a wave, like any other emotion. It’s a very high, intense wave, but it does have an escalation, a peak, and a decline. It will come and it will go. The best you can do is stay calm. If you breathe deep and say little, the meltdown will pass.”

Although many times parents try to talk their children out of having a meltdown, this usually makes everything worse. That means you should never say the following to your adolescent in the middle of a meltdown (or at any other time):

  • You’re not a baby. Why are you throwing a temper tantrum?
  • I’m sick and tired of this!
  • Can you please stop acting emotionally and just be rational?
  • You’re acting like a child.
  • I can’t handle this. You’re too much.
  • That’s enough, it’s time for you to stop.

These statements will most likely exacerbate your teenager’s emotional state. Also, if you ever find yourself saying these things to your children – tantrum or not, mental health issue or not – we urge you to consider rephrasing them in more supportive, compassionate, and empathetic ways.

Understanding the Meltdown

While it may be hard to sympathize with your child during a meltdown, offering compassion and validation might be easier once you understand why the meltdown is occurring.

Dr. Bass tells parents that adolescents don’t want to be having such a tantrum.

“They’re in emotional pain,” she reminds parents.

The stress that triggered the meltdown was too much for them to handle, and their prefrontal cortex – responsible for conscious self-control – has shut off. This means that during a tantrum or meltdown, their reactions are primal and animal-like. Hence the violence, the glazed look, and the screaming.

“When a child starts having a meltdown, their brain shifts to animal-brain mode. When their eyes start to look calmer, on the decline of the wave, offer a drink or hug. Before that point, if you offer a drink, you may end up wet. Plus, most adolescents in animal brain mode don’t like physical contact.”

After the Meltdown

After the meltdown stops, parents need to take some time for themselves.

“Don’t be surprised if you are still shaking, even when your adolescent is totally over the meltdown,” she says. “They just rode their wave, and it’s over now. Meanwhile, you’re still riding your own waves of emotion.”

Try to calm yourself down by deep breathing, picking up a magazine or book, or going for a run or a drive. Meltdowns are very stressful for parents, too, and if a parent doesn’t consciously unwind from the tension, they’re at risk of having their own meltdown later.

Mental Health Treatment for Adolescent Temper Tantrums

If meltdowns happen chronically with your adolescent, you can help them – and your family – by seeking mental health assistance in the form of an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), or Residential Treatment Center (RTC) for teens. Mental health treatment programs teach your teen evidence-based methods to reduce stress during out-of-control moments and help them learn to “ride the waves” of emotion as smoothly as possible. Over time, with the help of mental health professionals, your teen may learn to predict their own meltdowns and might even be able to prevent them by implementing various emotion-regulation and distress tolerance skills, such as those learned in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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