Preschool temper tantrums and meltdowns: the 'hidden handicap'

Preschool temper tantrums and meltdowns are a common concern for parents of children with communication disorders. Fatigue and over-stimulation may be to blame.

Children with communication disorders certainly seem to have more than their share of preschool temper tantrums, meltdowns, anxiety, frustration, and even aggression. A few of these children may in fact have some sort of emotional or psychological disorder requiring treatment. But for many children with communication disorders, preschool temper tantrums are part of what is sometimes called the "hidden handicap" of children with communication disorders--the debilitating effect of fatigue on a child's ability to cope with her surroundings.

The human brain is a huge consumer of energy. Although it accounts for only about two percent of the body's total weight, it uses approximately one fifth of the calories your body burns--more than that if the brain is working really hard.

If your brain works less efficiently, it will consume more energy to do less work; like a car with a poorly-tuned engine and under-inflated tires, you will simply run out of gas faster. Because day care, preschool, and elementary school are so communication-intensive, children with speech, language, or hearing disorders can quickly get worn out and over-stimulated in these settings. And as you well know, a tired child is not a happy child. It is no coincidence, then, that parents often notice a spike in these behavioral issues soon after their children begin attending a play group, preschool, or kindergarten.

Some children will reach the meltdown point while at school and will begin acting out in the classroom, presenting a challenge to staff and classmates. Others will hold it together at school only to tantrum after school, either after arriving home or in the car on the way home.

If what I am describing sounds like your child, you know what a serious challenge this is. If your child acts out at school, you may have already experienced the joy of being asked to come and pick up your 'out of control' child, or even to withdraw your child after multiple incidents because his or her preschool temper tantrums are disrupting the learning process for the other children. Even if no one says it, you may feel that the school personnel are judging your worth as a parent by your child's behavior. On the other hand, if your child waits and falls apart at home, you may be feeling there is something wrong with you or that you must be a horrible parent to have raised such a miserable and undisciplined child.

If you are in this situation, there are three very important things for you to remember:

  1. It is not the school's fault;
  2. It is not your child's fault; and
  3. It is not your fault.

This is a no-blame situation, and what really matters is providing your child with the support necessary for effective learning and development. Young children with communication disorders need a lot of good language stimulation; but they also need frequent opportunities to engage briefly in a non-challenging activity away from the center of activity. These 'brain breaks,' or 'preemptive time-outs,' should involve something the child enjoys and is good at so that there is no pressure to perform and no risk of failure.

The particular activity and where it takes place will depend on the child's interests, preferences, and needs. For some, it could be some sort of vigorous physical exercise like jumping on a trampoline, while others may do better listening to music or playing at a water table. Some kids may like any or all of these, depending on their mood, so it's always a good idea to offer two or three choices.

Most teachers will be receptive to implementing 'brain breaks' in the classroom, especially once it clicks for them that avoiding tantrums will actually allow them to spend less time doing behavior management and more time teaching.

You may also find it useful to provide 'brain breaks' at home, especially after school or following an outing or activity that was tiring for your child. The same principles apply: offer choices and make sure it is something your child enjoys and is good at. offers tips for managing behavior in children with a range of special needs in addition to communication disorders.

Stress Free Kids offers a variety of resources designed to help children manage anxiety, stress, and anger while promoting self-esteem and peaceful sleep.

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