Challenging behaviour and meltdowns are something that I deal with every day. After working in childcare for 12 years, (six years with children with additional needs) nothing could prepare me for dealing with my own child’s challenging behaviour in the home environment. I have soon learnt that the relationship I had with my pupils is completely different to the emotional connection that I have with my own daughter, Amber (aged four).  I have learnt that certain strategies that may have worked with the children I looked after do not work with Amber.

I quickly had to learn the important huge difference between a ‘temper tantrum’ and a ‘meltdown.’ As Amber has sensory processing disorder (SPD) with traits of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), she can experience ‘sensory overloads’ and this often results in a ‘meltdown.’

This is when I describe that she is no longer in control of her emotions, I’m often describing that Amber is neither ‘naughty’ or ‘spoilt,’ these meltdowns are occurring because there’s a sudden loud noise, a change of routine or she has become overwhelmed in a supermarket from the noise,  lights or sheer volume of people.

Amber has difficulty recognising that she’s feeling overwhelmed and therefore will display her feelings via kicking, hitting, pushing, throwing items, pushing her younger sister over, pulling stairgates off walls, thrashing herself about, banging walls or doors, spitting, screaming or shouting. 

At 18 months old I first noticed that Amber was a ‘sensory seeker,’ she would actively seek out anything that would provide a sensory input, for example, she enjoyed running the taps in any bathrooms and feeling the water run through her hands. I found that her temper tantrums were frequently and I was constantly told that this was ‘normal for her age’ and that she would ‘grow out of it”.


By the age of three, she became a big sister and I had prepared myself for her behaviour to become more challenging.  The advice I was given was that this should only be a ‘stage’ and that after she was used to having a new baby in the family, then her behaviour would improve, however it didn’t.  As time went on she became increasingly worse, and would display behaviour which on the whole was compliant in her Early Years setting but extremely challenging at home.  She would target her baby sister by pulling her legs and trying to tip over her Moses basket, the jealousy she felt toward her baby sister was quite extreme.

By the age of four I started to recognise certain things that Amber didn’t like, that she would avoid.  For example, physical contact – she would only give out cuddles on her terms and when she did they were very tight cuddles! She also became anxious around unexpected loud noises like motorbikes when outside and she could hear aeroplanes and grass cutters long before I could!

It was around her fourth birthday that I would say Amber’s ‘extreme meltdowns’ started. These were sometimes around 10 times a day and some would last over an hour, and I found it incredibly difficult to deal with as it was such unknown territory for me. The main triggers for her meltdowns are:

  • Unexpected loud noises.
  • Changes to routine – finds school holidays very difficult.
  • Wanting something that she cannot have – usually centred around food, as Amber cannot tell when she feels full. 
  • Public places – usually indoors – supermarkets, libraries, sports halls, swimming pools, cinema, theatre. 

I can usually gauge when Amber is on the verge of a meltdown, she becomes extremely restless, will talk quickly and will jump, clap her hands in front of her face or try and climb onto anything she can to jump off.


I use a range of strategies to help avoid a possible overload. I use visual displays of routines to show what is happening during each day, a traffic light system. This helps Amber identify if she needs to free play (green,) find a calm activity such as playdough (orange,) or go to her ‘calm zone (red). I also use individual cue cards and fans, e.g to show ‘kind hands.’ 

Read more of Nicki's blogs at Sensory Sensative Mummy