Tantrum or Meltdown: Tell the Difference and Help Your Child

Tantrum or Meltdown: How to Tell the Difference and Help Your Child

ParentingUpdated March 6, 2023 Opinion

by Jennifer Robenalt

Additional contribution by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist

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The other day, I was part of a “robust” discussion on Facebook after someone had posted a video of a child having an apparent tantrum. A mother took a video of her daughter kicking, screaming, and spitting in the back seat of a car. While the child was melting down, the mom scolded her for becoming so upset about not getting the gum the girl desperately wanted. It was clear that both the parent and the child were in distress. And people had some opinions about it.

Some people thought the child was a “brat” and should be punished. While others thought the mother was exacerbating the situation. And some people remarked that the child might have some other underlying concern that might have been influencing her behavior. Still, other parents chimed in to say that, without the whole story, it wasn’t a good idea to make any judgment about the child or the parent.

The truth is, every parent has been there. A toddler or young child is having a hard time and starts to wail uncontrollably. Does he want something? Is she trying to get attention? Is he just being fussy for no reason? What is going on?

Tantrum or Meltdown?

First, parents, give yourselves a break. You’re trying to handle chores, finances, school, work, relationships, etc. It’s virtually impossible to be in a perpetual state of patience or self-awareness. When managing the ups and downs of parenting, one of the biggest behavioral challenges is a tantrum. They can be incredibly triggering for parents or difficult to manage. However, it’s essential to understand why tantrums arise and how to cope. But more importantly, what if your child’s behavior is the “something else” those parents referred to in the Facebook chat?

What else looks like and sounds like a tantrum but isn’t one? A meltdown, that’s what. And they are both entirely different things that need different responses. Deciphering the difference between what many consider a typical “tantrum” and a  sensory “meltdown” is not always easy, but here are some tips on understanding your child’s emotional state and how to handle it.

Tantrums

A tantrum is when a child expresses anger and frustration through physical movement or vocalization. Simply put, tantrums might involve screaming, hitting, kicking, or throwing themselves on the floor. Tantrums can arise for various reasons; perhaps they are mad you wouldn’t get them that piece of gum they wanted, or you cut their sandwich wrong (yep, my daughter had a tantrum because I cut squares when she wanted triangles). You know that feeling when you really want something, and you’d do just about anything to get it? As adults, we have ways to “make things happen.” But kids are still developing and struggling to express themselves with words. For them, screaming and stomping may be a pretty good strategy to get what they want.1

Tantrums generally occur when our little people feel hungry or tired, find it hard to express themselves, or are experiencing a strong emotion. Typically, a tantrum will stop within a few minutes, and the child can calm themselves down. Tantrums are a very normal part of development (sorry!) and, while embarrassing, occur in around 70% of 18-24-month-olds and a whopping 75% of preschoolers. So you aren’t alone if your child expresses themselves via a tantrum.2

So how can you tell if your child is throwing a tantrum?

  • Does crying and fussing suddenly stop when the child gets what he wants? This may be a piece of candy, a toy, leaving somewhere, or not having to do an undesirable task. Usually, a tantrum occurs when the child hasn’t gotten their way or is trying to resolve something. It usually ceases when they get what they want.
  • Does the child tell you what she will do before she does it to prepare you for what’s to come? This may be holding her breath, jumping out of a shopping cart, refusing to get in the car, or throwing an object. A tantrum can be intentional, as children figure out that their behavior influences other people (for example, if I tantrum, my mommy gives me what I ask for).1
  • Does the child watch other people’s reactions as his tantrum unfolds and adjust his behavior according to those reactions? This might look like calming down when the adult starts negotiating or giving in to the demand. As mentioned above, this is because tantrums can be intentional ways of influencing the people around them.

How to Help

Here are some ways you can help your child:3,4

  • Acknowledge the “want” and clearly set expectations. Respond consistently to a child’s need to get what they want. It’s a good idea to empathize while also being resolute.
  • In some cases, use a strategy called “planned ignoring.” If the tantrum persists, walk away if you’re both in a safe place. Give your child space to vent without your attention.
  • Avoid yelling, berating, or losing control. Experts say it’s essential not to invalidate your child’s feelings or try to tell her how to feel.
  • Do not give in! If you have set a boundary or a limit, do not backtrack due to the tantrum. All this will do is reinforce the power of the tantrum, and although in the short term, it will resolve the behavior, in the long term, you will see more tantrums and more intense tantrums because this will become a tool for them to get what the want or need.
  • Give them emotion words and coping strategies. Not during the tantrum itself, but afterward, spend time with your child working out the emotion they were feeling, and teach them words to express themselves and match emotions to different coping strategies. “You felt angry; what was another way we could manage those big angry feelings? Maybe blow some bubbles and pop them, do some star jumps, what about a cuddle?” When your child understands the emotion, it’s less overwhelming (fewer tantrums), but they will also feel more confident to manage their emotions when you support them to learn coping strategies, as they understand feelings won’t last forever and that they have strategies to reduce the intensity of the feeling.

Meltdowns

Meltdowns are very different than traditional temper tantrums. A meltdown is not intentional and can be described as a fight, flight, or freeze response that the body is experiencing as a result of sensory overload. It generally doesn’t resolve until the offending stimulus is removed (or the child is removed), and it can take quite some time for the child to escalate back down to normal functioning. This is very different from a tantrum which is often intentional or purposeful in that the goal is to elicit some kind of response or outcome, whereas a meltdown is beyond your child’s control.5

Kids in the throes of a severe meltdown are not in control of their developing nervous systems and need support and assistance from a caregiver. Here are some signs of a meltdown and what to do to help:5

  • Meltdowns are based on senses being overstimulated, leading to a flight, fight, or freeze. This may look like suddenly running away, hitting or kicking, or “zoning out” and not being responsive to directions or requests.
  • Meltdowns can look like sudden screaming, excessive whining, crying, spitting, biting, kicking, hitting, yelling, or covering eyes or ears. Kids experiencing a meltdown cannot regulate their emotions in the moment.
  • Kids in the throes of a meltdown are not interested in getting attention or having an audience. They are reacting to feelings of being overwhelmed.

How to help

Here are some ways you can help your child:5,6

  • Stay calm and avoid trying to “talk it out,” discuss consequences, or get to the bottom of the behavior. The child is not in control of his nervous system, and the first order of business is to help him calm down and breathe.
  • Remove the child from the situation calmly and quickly. If you’re in a grocery store, leave the items behind and get to a quiet space with little stimuli where she can regain control with your support. Limit talking and encourage her to breathe deeply.
  • Take note of the triggers. Was there a routine change or overwhelming lights, sounds, or smells? Was the child hungry or dehydrated? Try to determine any triggers for the behavior and create a strategy to avoid those in the future. This may mean having a supply of snacks on hand or providing distracting and buffering items like fidgets or noise-canceling headphones. The best way to avoid a meltdown is to prevent one.

If meltdowns persist, talk to your pediatrician about any potential medical issues your child might be experiencing and learn more about sensory meltdowns. Persistent meltdowns may indicate anxiety in toddlers, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, depression, or autism.

Children can experience sensory sensitivities that make them more prone to becoming overwhelmed and, in turn, melting down. But it is also important to know that meltdowns can be symptoms of other diagnoses and mental health conditions that might require additional support or review by your doctor or pediatrician. Remember, regardless of whether your child is exhibiting a meltdown or a tantrum, behavior is communication. So we must watch for triggers and help build their capacity to cope and manage big feelings or sensory overwhelm. It’s also important to look out for yourself and manage your emotions when your child is having a tantrum or meltdown. Your response can either feed into or support them through this challenging time, so ensure you consider how you can remain calm and collected to ensure the best outcome for you both.

Resources
1. https://journals.lww.com/jrnldbp/2003/06000/.aspx
2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1745-7599.2012.00755.x
4. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.21602
5.  Lipsky, D. (2011). From anxiety to meltdown: How individuals on the autism spectrum deal with anxiety, experience meltdowns, manifest tantrums and how you can intervene effectively. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
6. Colvin, G., & Sheehan, M. (2012). Managing the cycle of meltdowns for students with autism spectrum disorder. Corwin Press

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