Infinity and Beyond Pediatric Therapy logo

How to Help Your Child During A Sensory Meltdown

boy toddler crying and screaming

How do you help your child during a sensory meltdown? In our last blog, Stephanie Vogler, OTR/L, described 10 Reasons Your Preschooler Has Temper Tantrums or Meltdowns. Today, Stephanie focuses on how to help your child who has sensory meltdowns.

Sensory meltdown or temper tantrum?

First, it’s important to understand whether your child is having a sensory meltdown or a temper tantrum. Outwardly, a meltdown may look like a temper tantrum. In both cases, your child may kick, scream, cry, or flail.

Additionally, children with sensory issues may also throw temper tantrums, which can cause further confusion between the two.

However, three specific features can often distinguish between the two types of outbursts. These features include the trigger, the circumstance, and the resolution.

For example, new situations, specific sensory issues, and an inability to self-soothe are common distinctions of sensory meltdowns. On the other hand, temper tantrums can be a bid for attention or a desire to get one’s way.

What’s more, temper tantrums tend to resolve more easily (if handled properly) and occur more often in preschoolers.

Talk to your pediatrician if you’re unsure whether your child is having tantrums or meltdowns.  Your doctor may suggest a referral to an occupational therapist who can better assess the situation. An occupational therapist can also customize recommendations and advice for you and your child.

Prevent a meltdown in the first place.

The best way to help a child with sensory meltdowns is to prevent or help minimize the chance of a meltdown in the first place.

Avert the Most Frequent Causes of Temper Tantrums and Meltdowns.

Ensuring your child’s physical needs are met and avoiding sensory triggers are two ways that you can help thwart the onset of a meltdown.

Meet your child’s basic physical needs.

Hunger, sleepiness, fatigue, and illness can set off almost any young child—with or without sensory issues. But these issues especially impact children with sensory issues.

Therefore it’s important to plan ahead and ensure your child:

  • Eats regular meals and snacks.
  • Enjoys uninterrupted naptimes (toddlers and preschoolers).
  • Gets enough sleep at night.
  • Doesn’t have an underlying medical problem that interferes with sleep or meals.

Stick to a routine.

If your child is tired or hungry, they will have little reserve when sensory issues stress them. Like a car with an empty gas tank trying to run on fumes, a sick, hungry, or tired child is more prone to lose it—with or without sensory issues.

Implement reliable parenting strategies.

Another way to prevent or minimize your child’s sensory meltdown is to adopt a consistent parenting approach.

Frustrated children (and some frustrated adults) can lose it when their world feels out of control. By taking a consistent parenting approach, you may increase your child’s ability to participate in desired activities.

Ensure your child knows what to expect.

Setting clear expectations for children with SPD is especially important. Children without SPD may delight in surprises. But unexpected changes or shifts in the usual routine can feel overwhelming for a child with SPD.

Like all children, a child with sensory issues (including sensory processing disorder or SPD) must know and understand the following:

  • What is and is not acceptable behavior in any situation
  • The exact and consistent consequence of misbehaving
  • The reward for behaving
  • What to expect at home and in everyday settings
  • What to expect in new, unusual, or special circumstances

Be consistent.

 If you’re inconsistent, your child may believe that if they howl LONGER and LOUDER, perhaps THIS will be the day that you DO give in.

Reduce Sensory Triggers

Besides meeting your child’s physical and behavioral needs as a necessary foundation for avoiding meltdowns, consider which factors or sensory inputs may be causing added stress for your child.


Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is a biological trait, such as having black hair or blue eyes. You may have even heard people saying they are an HSP (highly sensitive person). However, these two terms are not the same.

HSPs are typically sensitive to moods and feelings.

On the other hand, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain processes sensory information differently. Doctors don’t know what causes SPD, but they think it may run in families.

SPD can affect any or many senses. Plus, children with SPD may have other conditions at the same time.

For example, SPD is commonly seen in people with autism or attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Most people with autism or ADHD have SPD. But that does NOT mean that your child with sensory issues has another disorder besides SPD.

Avoid or Reduce Sensory Discomfort.

Reducing your child’s distress from sensory issues does NOT mean you necessarily:

  • Never leave the house.
  • Ignore bad behavior.
  • Allow or excuse your child’s inappropriate behavior (e.g., not brushing their hair, going naked in public, biting someone, etc.).

Furthermore, the strategies you use to prevent sensory meltdowns will vary depending on your child’s specific sensory needs. For example, effective strategies for a child with noise sensitivity will differ from those for a child with light sensitivity.

The list below is not comprehensive but may offer you a few effective strategies depending on your child’s sensory needs. Here are a few tips we share with parents whose children come to our occupational therapy (OT) clinic:

Tactile Sensitivity

  • In brick-and-mortar clothing stores, offer your child options within your budget. Then, allow your child to try on and choose outfits they find comfortable.
  • For online purchases, return what your child won’t wear. Don’t force the issue.
  • Buy clothes without seams or tight elastic bands around the wrist, arms, waist, or ankles.
  • Remove care tags from shirts and pants.
  • When specific clothes or shoes are required, have your child practice wearing them for a short time each day, then gradually increase the duration.
  • Try a stretchy compression shirt to calm the sensory system.
  • Give your child bear hugs.
  • Gradually introduce skills that may be triggering, such as hair brushing, bathing, or wearing new shoes.

Visual or Light Sensitivity

  • Install a light dimmer switch; turn it up or down (depending on your child’s sensitivity).
  • Avoid glaring fluorescent lights when possible.
  • Buy window shades for your home or car.
  • Declutter rooms and workspaces.
  • Avoid overstimulating colors or patterns when decorating.
  • Offer visual schedules and visual timers.

Sound Sensitivity

  • Use noise-canceling headphones or earbuds.
  • Gradually build up your child’s exposure to noise.
  • Give your child a heads up or remind them what to expect in unfamiliar, noisy circumstances (e.g., family celebrations, amusement parks, or parades).
  • Use white noise or soothing music to calm your child each night.
  • Schedule activities at times that are less busy, crowded, or noisy (e.g., Disneyworld in November vs. spring break week).

Smell and Taste Sensitivities

  • Try a stepwise approach to introducing new foods; in other words, be near the food, then smell the food, then taste a portion of the food.

Vestibular and Proprioceptive Issues

  • Work with an occupational therapist to strengthen your child’s muscles, increase their endurance, improve their balance, and/or enhance their body awareness.
  • Offer movement breaks throughout the day.
  • Encourage activities that incorporate heavy resistance, such as wheelbarrow walking, carrying groceries, pushing a weighted cart, etc.

Any Sensory Issue

  • Set expectations for new situations, and prepare your child for transitions.
  • Offer your child an object that comforts them, such as a hand fidget or stuffed animal during stressful activities.
  • Allow your child to take brief breaks to escape temporarily from a crowded or overwhelming environment.
  • Set up a “calm-down corner” in your house that your child can go to when upset or out of control.
  • Don’t try reasoning with or punish a child who is in the throes of a meltdown.
  • Teach your child skills, such as deep breathing, to help them learn to self-soothe.
  • Once calm, coach your child on expressing their emotions and needs in socially appropriate ways.
  • Work with an occupational therapist to integrate reflex patterns, which are foundational to sensory processing abilities, self-regulation, and overall well-being.

Test Strategies That Work With Temper Tantrums

  • If no one is getting injured, try ignoring the bad behavior. This may work if your child is seeking attention or if adults have been inconsistent about setting expectations and consequences.
  • Distract your toddler.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings and be firm. (“I know you’re sad and frustrated that Mommy isn’t buying a cookie, but we’re buying milk right now.”)
  • Using a “First, then” approach. “First, get your jacket on, then you can have a juice box in the car.”
  • Help your child be successful by consistently receiving the sensory input they need throughout the day. This can include limiting or increasing sensory input. This change in input will help your child remain in a “just right” arousal level. A trained occupational therapist can help you understand your child’s unique sensory needs.
  • Learn to read your child’s body language and cues. This can help you to de-escalate their big emotions before they are out of control.
  • Recognize that your child may NOT be able to stop on their own. They may be in a “flight” or “fight” mode.

Customize your approach.

Finally, understand that your child is unique. No one-size-fits-all solution exists. As occupational therapists, we’ve included some ideas that may help your child.

Talk to your pediatrician and contact us if you need help with your child’s temper tantrums or meltdowns.

About Stephanie

Stephanie Vogler smiling and holding her daughter

Stephanie Vogler, OTR/L, C/NDT, MNRI® Core Specialist, is the owner and founder of Infinity and Beyond Pediatric Therapy. Learn more about Stephanie.

Send Us A Message

Brittany Frankel

Brittany Frankel graduated from Elmhurst University with her Master of Occupational Therapy and holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Northeastern Illinois University. Brittany is passionate about working with children and developing strong relationships with their families to ensure collaboration to work towards the client and family-oriented goals. She has experience working with children with difficulties in a variety of areas but is especially passionate about working with children with sensory and emotional regulation and executive functioning challenges. Brittany has taken continuing education courses in areas including Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration (MNRI), interoception, executive dysfunction, and sensory processing. Brittany works under the belief that “kids do well if they can,” a quote from Dr. Ross Greene, and that a large piece of intervention is working to uncover the underlying deficits leading to functional difficulties. When not working, Brittany’s favorite hobbies include horseback riding, spending time with her cat and dog, reading, and playing with her nieces and nephew.