What to do about meltdowns? Use safety cues.

So, to cut a long story short, the last call for boarding was announced. My mum scooped my sister up off the floor and reasoned that it was our last chance to get home. This completely flipped my sister’s lid and she bit my Mum’s wrist…

“That’s why.” replied the little girl’s mum. 

Safe to say that my mum’s reasoning didn’t have the desired effect but the Polyvagal theory can help us to think about why this might be. 

Most of the time, we feel relaxed and able to feel socially connected to the world and those around us. We also feel safe from danger. Although, if our brain does sense danger we can have one of two responses. We may ‘shut down’ if we feel extreme stress and disconnect from the world. This puts us in a low arousal state with feelings of lethargy and sadness until the danger has passed. Or we may have the the high arousal fight or flight response. We might feel a rush of energy with anxious or aggressive feelings and physical sensations such as a fast heartbeat and or quick breathing. 

Polyvagal ladder. Taken from the Trauma Geek blog.

Meltdowns can be thought of as our body experiencing this fight or flight mode, after sensing danger in our environment. 

So how do we move back up the ladder to a more relaxed and safe state of mind?

Danger cues send subconscious messages to our brain about which state is best for our survival, so they move us down the ladder- sounding the alarm and telling our body to prepare for danger. 

Safety cues however move us back up the ladder. They stop the alarm ringing and tell us it’s safe to relax. 

Often, these cues and our physical and emotional reactions are outside of our conscious awareness or control.

Here are some examples of danger cues: 

  1. Mean words said by a peer
  2. A sudden and startling noise
  3. Being in a crowded room

And here are some examples of safety cues:

  1. A fluffy blanket that feels nice on the skin
  2. A favourite smell like a mum’s perfume
  3. A cuddle with some validating words and tone of voice

Everybody’s safety and danger cues will be unique. But, they will likely be very sensory because the alarm (amygdala, we mentioned in our last post) is very primitive and doesn’t respond well to high-level reasoning. 

How do I work out what my child’s safety and danger cues are?

  1. If a meltdown keeps occurring in a particular place, take an inventory of characteristics or objects in that place. What does your child think or feel about each? Older children might be able to notice body sensations or a ‘gut reaction’. For younger children you need to notice their reaction. 
  2. Note any things that soothe your child. Focus on the senses, especially smells. Carry these things with you, perhaps it roll on lavender oil or a patch of a fluffy blanket.
  3. Use breathing exercises to regulate physical symptoms. Imagine blowing up a balloon on the inhale and letting it deflate slowly on the exhale.
  4. Have a key phrase to repeat to yourself or a smell for you – you are a cue for your child, your child will follow your lead.
  5. Remember that you know your child best. Keep notes on what works and what doesn’t- become experimental and remember that you’ve got this!

As always,

Take care

Pocket Family Psychologist

Written by Ellie Harper.

3 ways to get our help



Sign up to Our mailing list for hints and tips updates.

"Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative"

“Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative. During the second period of lockdown and home-schooling; parents and children found themselves again in a period of upheaval and transition. Many parents and carers were extremely worried about their children’s mental health and their own ability to be present and engaged whilst also playing the role of teacher and care giver. Dr Shortland gave attendees an insight into how many parents were feeling; tips on supporting children and helping them cope whilst studying from home and also managing their mental health. She also helped us realise the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to effectively support our children. It was such a useful session that we realise it was also pertinent for not only children’s mental health but also adults! We will be holding another session with Dr Andrea and MediaCom soon.”

Avelon Thompson, MediaCom (following a parenting workshop)