For Children Social & Emotional

Stop Your Child’s Meltdowns with a Simple Tool – free printable

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I hear you friend. You have a kiddo with big feelings or some developmental needs.  You need more strategies to stop your child’s meltdowns.

Does your toddler scream every time you need to buckle the car seat?  You try to reason with your child, but it only makes things worse.

Or maybe your preschooler collapses into tears every time you announce it’s time to pick up the toys? You feel frustrated that it has to be so hard.

Does your school-age child struggle routinely when it’s time to turn off the TV?  You give the direction and then it’s crickets – no response and no action. Then you get angry and it turns into an epic argument.

You are not alone.  These are common challenges and fortunately you can stop your child’s meltdowns with a simple tool.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links; read more here.


Why Does My Child Meltdown?

There are a lot of reasons why children have meltdowns, but it simply comes down to this: the demands of the situation are greater than your child’s ability to cope.

Children simply do not have fully developed brains to manage their emotions the way adults can. Let’s also remember MANY, MANY adults struggle to regulate their emotions well, too – have you seen impatient adults waiting in line at the grocery store?

Managing to cope with feelings is called emotional regulation.  Most emotional regulation happens in the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain.  Remarkably, that part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until 25 years old which explains why young adults can still struggle to make good decisions.

What does this mean for your child? First, if your child struggles with emotional regulation, you’re not alone!  Second, it’s up to you as a parent to figure out how to support your child.  Luckily, I found a similar tool that helps prevent or stop meltdowns.

six printable visual cards to stop your child's meltodown

Visuals Can Stop Your Child’s Meltdowns

While the brain hasn’t fully developed in your child, he or she still has a lot of brain power.  You just need to leverage your child’s strengths correctly in order to help your child process information.

Brain research has demonstrated that our brains can process images a lot better than spoken language.  Pictures place less demands on the brain.

When your child is facing a difficult situation, your child has a lot less brain power to deal with words than with pictures. So using a visual will help stop your child’s meltdowns.


First, Then Visuals Can Prevent Meltdowns

The simplest way I’ve found to stop with my child’s meltdowns is to use a “First, Then.”  It is a visual display for something parents need their children to do first, followed then by something their children would prefer to do.

We call the first item the non-preferred task because your child doesn’t want to do it, and it’s followed then by a preferred task, or something your child wants to do.

The printable example in the photo above shows a First, Then where your child will first eat which is the non-preferred activity. Then your child can play, which is the preferred activity.

Let’s return to our examples described above:

You need your toddler to buckle the car seat, but your child is screaming because he wants his toy.  First your child does the non-preferred activity of buckling the car seat, then you can hand your child the toy.

You need your preschooler to pick up the toys, but he’s ready go outside.  Pick up toys is non-preferred, followed by the preferred task of playing outside.

When you use a “First, Then” visual it shows your child that he or she needs to do the challenging task first followed by a preferred or fun task.


First, Then Visuals Work

This was one of the first interventions we used at home for our daughter and I didn’t even realize it was a thing.

When we met with a child psychologist to discuss assessing our daughter’s developmental delays, I explained how I’d draw pictures of what I wanted my daughter to do followed by want she wanted to do. The psychologist responded, “Oh, so you use First, Then with your child.”

Many special education teachers and developmental therapists use this evidence-based intervention because it’s so simple, it works.

First, Then visuals remove the demands of language. Adults use WAY TOO MANY words when trying to deescalate a meltdown. You might say, “you need to buckle your car seat now or I’m going to be late for work.”

Using “First car seat, then toy” with pictures eliminates all those extra words and allows your child to use all their brain power to manage their big feelings.

More Benefits of Using First, Then Visuals

There are other benefit of using First, Then visuals.

First, it strengthens receptive and expressive language (hearing and speaking). Again, when adults eliminate all the extra words in difficult situations and use a picture to support it, it allows children to internalize the vocabulary.

Second, it demonstrates to children that their needs are valuable. You’re still setting a boundary by placing the important routine activity or task “First”, but you are honoring your child’s needs or requests in the “Then” spot.

Third, it helps children develop self-control. As you use “First, Then” visuals, your child will begin to internalize that they can do the non-preferred task first, and be rewarded with the “Then” fun task.  Your child will practice delayed gratification through using “First, Then.”  This will help with meltdowns tremendously because they will strengthen your child’s frustration tolerance.

Fourth, “First, Then” visuals helps children learn new skills. Sometimes when a child is resistant to trying a new skill, it’s because the skill is just plain hard.  Thus, using the visual is a simple way to prevent a meltdown and begin introducing the new skill gradually.  This will increase the child’s persistence in difficult tasks.

First, Then Visuals are incredibly effective for a number of reasons.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

My Child Only Wants to Get His Way

If you find yourself resistant to this idea, you might be thinking, my child can do the non-preferred “First” skill but she is just stubborn and only wants to get her way.

Don’t you want to get your way, too? When you’re asking you child to buckle her car seat, you’re trying to get your needs met, too.  You want to get to work on time.

A lot of adults use this script that children are just manipulative. Sadly, it’s really prevalent in our society and reinforced in a lot of parenting advice.

But in reality all people want to get their way – it’s part of being human. We all have needs and desires.  Plus, being manipulative requires a lot of advanced thinking and planning skills that most children lack due to typical development.  If your child has any developmental delays, chances are they are lacking these skills even more.

Your child is melting down because he lacks the ability to think proactively to solve his problems in a more effective way. Thus, using the “First, Then” visuals and language is a way to teach your child to get everyone’s needs met in your family.

How To Use First, Then Visuals for Home

You’ll need to gather a few supplies and prepare the First, Then Visuals before you can use them. Alternatively, you can also just print out the cards, skip laminating, and reprint once the First, Then Visual cards get icky looking.


Steps for the common scenarios

  1. First print these printables. I’ve created six common scenarios and then provided you with a blank board can use.
  2. You’ll need to either laminate the First, Then visuals or plan to reprint once they are worn.  It is better to just start than wait until you can use the cards “perfectly.”
  3. Start with a task your child already completes with only minor complaint. Then work up to more challenging tasks. (See below)

Steps for the blank scenarios

  1. First print the blank board in the printables.
  2. You can laminate the blank First, Then board or you can place it inside a plastic sheet protector.
  3. Then draw the pictures for your child with a dry erase marker.  We love these Crayola washable dry erase markers because I’ve spent way too much time on laundry stains with regular dry erase markers.
  4. Start with a task your child already completes with only minor complaint. Then work up to more challenging tasks. (see below)
  5. If you don’t want to laminate or find yourself drawing the same thing over and over, print out a bunch of the blank templates and draw in common scenarios you deal with at home.  Don’t let perfectionism stop you from using these – your stick figure drawings will work for your child!

Important Note

As I mentioned above, it’s usually best to start with a task your child already completes with only minor complaint. You’re building familiarity with this process so start with smaller problems and then work up to more challenging tasks.

For example, if brushing teeth is leading to explosive meltdowns in your house, table that for now.  If cleaning up toys is just causing minor frustration, start with the the clean up toys problem.  As your child gets used to the First, Then process, he or she will gain trust that their needs will be met.

You can build success from there as your child develop skill with delayed gratification and builds frustration tolerance.

Recapping How to Stop Your Child’s Meltdowns

Here’s the recap for busy parents:

  • It is normal for children to have meltdowns.
  • Meltdowns occur when the demands of the situation are greater than your child’s ability to cope.
  • Emotional regulation is your child’s ability to manage difficult feelings.
  • The prefrontal cortex controls emotional regulation and it doesn’t fully develop until age 25.
  • Grown-up can have a hard time with big feelings, too!
  • The brain has an easier time with pictures than with spoken words.
  • It’s effect to pair what your child wants to do (preferred task) with what the adult needs the child to do (non-preferred task)
  • When your child is having a meltdown over something they don’t want to do, try using a First, Then Visual.
  • Make sure to start with tasks that are just a little challenging, rather than your biggest challenge with your child.


Your child is not melting down to control you.  Your child needs more strategies to cope with difficult situations.  Use First, Then visual as a simple solution to reduce meltdowns, teach your child important skills, and have more peace at home!

Get the printable here.

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