A Meltdown is a Panic Attack, On a Nervous System Level

autism meltdowns Oct 12, 2023

It’s Christmas morning, and your child is screaming that they hate all their presents. Ungrateful? Spoiled? Bad and rotten kid? And you—a failure of a parent?


A meltdown is a panic attack. The brain system can no longer respond adaptively.

As Ross Greene puts it, “The behavior is just the signal… If caregivers are focused only on modifying behavior, then all they’re modifying is the signal. But they’re not solving any of the problems that are causing the signal.”

Before we label that meltdown and attribute all kinds of meaning to it, we need to slow down and look at what's happening in the brain.


“A child who seems to be misbehaving is, in the process, adapting and surviving.”

-Dr. Mona Delahooke


Neuroscience teaches us that when a child is exhibiting extreme dysregulation, or what we would call a meltdown, they are occupying a part of the brain that is less developed, automatic, reflex-oriented. It's the fight-or-flight region of the brain.

Such extreme dysregulation, enough to trigger the fight-or-flight system, is highly stressful for the child. They are exhibiting these stress behaviors as a signal that their brain has reached peak stress and can handle no more.

With this lens, the extreme stress behavior is a signal that the brain is in panic-mode. The meltdown is really a panic attack for the brain.


What does it mean if a meltdown is really a panic attack?

It means that the child cannot be shamed or judged for the behaviors they exhibit while in panic mode. When the child is having a panic attack, the goal is simply to minimize harm and coregulate, to bring the child back to stability.

It also means you are not a bad parent for "letting them get away with it." You have a child prone to panic attacks and you are supporting them through this challenging time. Like if your child was prone to seizures or had diabetes, you would need to make radical changes to the environment to accommodate them.

But you would also know that despite your best efforts, things happen, and your goal in those hard times is simply to support your child through it and learn what you can to prevent it for next time. Without shaming yourself or your child, you are also more open to learning important lessons for future similar situations.

We cannot expect our children's rational brain to be available to them during a meltdown. We cannot talk them out of it. They are not able to learn and grow in that moment, so we do not need to teach them a lesson. They can learn the brain pathway from dysregulation to regulation, the journey to stability.


The Takeaway

On a brain level, a meltdown is a panic attack, a brain under extreme stress, only able to access panic regions of the brain. The goal when your child is melting down is simply to minimize harm and coregulate. Once its over, you learn what you can for next time. We can stop shaming ourselves and our children for meltdowns. We can accept that some children have neurosystems prone to anxiety-attacks.


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