Emotional Meltdowns Overview
If a student erupts quickly over seemingly minor events, displays a high degree of irritability, or heavily withdraws from others, then he or she may be experiencing emotional or behavioral meltdowns. We want you to know there is hope. We have worked with hundreds of children that exhibit emotional behavioral meltdowns and have helped them develop the proper wiring in their brain and proper thought patterns to begin engaging in more adaptive patterns of functioning.
What Do Emotional Behavioral Meltdowns Look Like?
Often when a student lacks self-regulation, they may display disproportionate and disruptive emotionality or behaviors, as he or she is unable to act in a mindful and intentional way. In the student's mind, he or she is truly experiencing a given moment through the perception of it being life-threatening. Therefore, they go into fight or flight behaviors as a result, regardless if the moment actually warrants that reaction.
Students may even have received a specific diagnosis because of these emotional behavioral meltdowns such as Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, Major Depression, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Dysregulation vs. At-Choice Behavior
Though a child can not be at choice due to long term maladaptive coping mechanisms, many times there are also moments in which the child is engaging in “at-choice” behavior. This is to say that the child does in fact have control over their emotional and behavioral response in the moment and is manipulating the situation to escape expectations, garner attention, or gain access to something preferred. Consequently, it is vitally important for all parents or providers interacting with the child to understand this dichotomy and provide clear and supportive boundaries accordingly.
How The Brain Impacts Emotional Meltdowns
Brain Stem, Midbrain, Cortex
We evaluate and program for students always remembering that we must build a strong foundation from the most primitive regions of the brain up to the higher cortical levels. So many of our students show very clear “gaps” in their growth and development, often in the most primitive areas of the brain stem and cerebellum and the ability of this region to then “feed up” information to be processed in the midbrain, and ultimately to be received by the frontal lobes where true “at choice” behavior resides. A child struggling with emotional, behavioral, or relational challenges most often shows high degrees of dysregulation in the communication of these systems.
Limbic System & Prefrontal Cortex
When we look at the brain maps of students who display emotional behavioral meltdowns, we typically see communication is excessive in the areas of the Limbic System (Insular Cortex, Cingulate Gyrus). This region of the brain is where self-regulation, fight or flight response, and regulation of the body’s homeostasis are located. Often these areas are struggling to communicate with the Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive control of behavior. Another common pattern is the dysregulation that we see in the Superior and Middle Temporal Gyrus, where we experience emotional stimuli, specifically fear and threat.
qEEG brain map of a Hope School student with emotional meltdown challenges
Examples of Emotional Meltdowns
1) Erupting Over Seemingly Minor Events
An eruption can look like crying uncontrollably, screaming, or even engaging in physicality, such as destructing property within the immediate environment, self-injury, or hitting others. All of this often seems like an extreme response to what others perceive to be a small issue. Though this can be very real for the child, over the years, because of the attention and placation that they garner in response to this specific behavior, many times they become accustomed to the getting their “wants” met with near immediacy. Because of this, at times, the child may exhibit moments of rage over the perception of their will not being fulfilled. Though it is very important that the child understands that his feelings are important and that we care about those feelings, there is also a set of expectations he must adhere to, which sometimes may not be within the same framework of what he wants.
Though occasional irritability is a natural part of life, when this becomes a frequent interference in your child’s ability to function in a healthy and productive way, your child suffers. This irritability looks like a “short fuse”- becoming frustrated or upset easily- and is indicative of low distress tolerance, which is described as an individual's ability to manage their internal emotional state in response to stress-inducing factors. Often triggers to this include a situation not going as expected, feeling misunderstood, and perceived difficulty level of task.
In order to best support your child through their irritability, it will be important to address their limited distress tolerance in an effort to expand the threshold in which he or she can manage their internal emotional state
3) Heavily Withdraws from Others
Withdrawn behavior is avoiding or not seeking out social contact. This may be an active avoidance or simply not initiating contact. For a child who experiences emotional behavioral meltdowns, they may be experiencing a high degree of anger and burnout, which causes them to pull away from others. However, just as with the challenging example of eruption over seemingly minor events, though this can be very real for the child, this behavior can also become an “at-choice” learned response.
Because withdrawal behavior garners attention from caregivers, the child is able to both see immediate tangibility of the caregivers love, as well as learn that this can be manipulated in order to meet a need the child feels they are not obtaining. While we always want to ensure our child that they are loved and cared for, we also do not want to give in to maladaptive ways to garner such affirmation.
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Strategies To Help At Home
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