Sensory Meltdowns

May 14 , 2018

A sensory meltdown is a fight or flight response to sensory overload. It can often be mistaken for a tantrum or behavior problem.

Children with sensory processing challenges can be compared to this cup example. Our sensory kids’ cups are typically occupied by some level of sensory challenge throughout the day. They experience uncomfortable or
challenging sensorimotor experiences that they often have learned to cope with on a daily basis. These sensory experiences become “residue” left in their cup as they aren’t making them disappear daily. When they merely cope with the sensations they aren’t making them disappear, they are pushing them aside for
the time being so that they can meet the other demands of daily situations. So now we can see that our sensory kids can start with a somewhat full cup compared to a child that does not have difficulties with processing sensory information. If support is not given, our sensory kid’s cup can fill up quicker once daily social, academic, emotional, and physical demands are placed on them. Their cup becomes full and a sensory meltdown can be triggered.


• sensory overload
• inability to maintain self-regulation
• inability to cope with new or challenging situations
• inability to communicate wants or needs
• difficulty with transitions
• change in routine



use a calm voice/stay in control – remember that your child is having a neurological response, you cannot           help your child if you are not calm yourself
use short phrases and a quiet voice
talk as little as possible – the brain is having a fight or flight response and the part of the brain that                     processes language is essentially shut down
remove child from the over stimulated environment – find a quiet place for child to calm down
use deep breathing exercises – in through the nose our through the mouth (do with your child)
provide a sensory retreat – firm squeezes to arms/legs, soft music, weighted blanket, etc.
label emotions – I can see that you are frustrated. I bet it made you mad that someone took your turn. etc.


“Fight or Flight” refers to the response by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) that is intended for safety and the ability to react to a perceived dangerous situation.
Children with sensory difficulties can see their environment as dangerous based on how they process sensory information. When having a sensory meltdown the nervous system switches to a “fight or flight” response. The
brain can no longer take in demands as their “cup is full”.

Common behaviors that may manifest itself in this response:
•hitting, kicking, spitting, biting
•running or escaping from situation
•hiding under something
•covering ears or eyes
•shutting down; not speaking or responding
•avoiding eye contact

At this point the brain cannot respond with reasoning as it is in “fight or flight” mode.

For more information and helpful strategies contact your Occupational Therapist.

Click the link to download a printer friendly handout:

Sensory Meltdowns