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  • Markus Hunt

A Tachometer for Tantrums

Children who are built for speed may have crappy brakes.

One moment they're calm and the next they're spinning out of control and it takes a team of experts to calm them down again. I've heard adults refer to this phenomenon in child emotional dysregulation as "going from zero to 60." An analogy borrowed from the car industry to describe the relative acceleration of a vehicle, it may seem to also describe the rapid escalation of a child's emotions; however, I don't think this analogy is telling the whole story. There is something else going on under the hood.


What's more likely than the idea that a child goes from a baseline of zero to a full-blown meltdown at 60 is that the child has really been observed cruising at a casual 55 but that's their normal— and it's no cause for alarm. If the baseline is 55, getting to 60 isn't such a jump. These students are always revving at a high rate and are able to be highly functional at near top speeds. Then, when something that we view as small gets in their way, it produces a crash of epic proportions. Sometimes it's perfectionism and sometimes it's fatigue, but it's always best if caught early. These children push themselves to the limit and the adults who care for them need to help them ease off the gas.


Think of the speedometer as what's observable on the outside (the behaviors) and the tachometer represents how high the child is revving on the inside (the feelings). Once a pattern can be observed, check in with the child to provide support and then begin to help them recognize their own patterns of dysregulation. As a caveat, reward systems don't work in these situations. Dysregulation is not a willful act, it's just how they're built and/or where they are in their emotional development. Since there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting children, it takes a watchful and patient mechanic to keep those engines from burning out.

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