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

Child crying in shopping cart in supermarket

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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, who was kicking, screaming, and spitting in the back seat of a car. While the child was melting down, the mom berated her for 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. Others thought the mother was exacerbating the situation. A couple of people remarked that… Read More

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, who was kicking, screaming, and spitting in the back seat of a car. While the child was melting down, the mom berated her for 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. Others thought the mother was exacerbating the situation. A couple of people remarked that the child might have some underlying Sensory Processing Disorder issues since she was not a toddler. 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, and so much more. It’s virtually impossible to be in a perpetual state of patience or self-awareness. That said, the mental and emotional health of your family may rest in the understanding that there is a difference between what many consider to be a typical “tantrum” and a real sensory “meltdown.” Deciphering is not always easy, but here are some tips on understanding your child’s emotional state and how to handle it.

Tantrums

You know that feeling when you really want something, and you’d do just about anything to get it? As adults, we have our tried and true 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. In fact, tantrums can occur in children up to age 4. So, how can you tell if your child is throwing a tantrum? Consider these signs and tips for handling them:

  • Does the crying and fussing suddenly stop when the child gets what he wants? This may be a piece of candy, a toy, leaving a situation that seems boring, or not having to do an undesired task.
  • Does the child tell you what she’s going to 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.
  • Does the child watch other people’s reactions as his tantrum is unfolding and adjust behavior according to those reactions? This might look like calming down when the adult starts to negotiate or give in to the demand.

How to Help:

  • Acknowledge the “want” and clearly set expectations. Be consistent in responding 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 important not to invalidate your child’s feelings or try to tell her how to feel.

Meltdowns

Meltdowns are very different than traditional temper tantrums, which generally have a goal in mind. When children are overwhelmed by their senses (light, sound, smell), feel frustrated, become anxious or frightened, or feel out of control, a meltdown can happen.

Think about it. Adults have meltdowns all the time. This may look like anger or crying outbursts, sudden mood changes, headaches or other physical symptoms, and more. We’ve just evolved to understand which is socially acceptable and what can be expressed privately. But for kids who are in the throes of a serious meltdown, they are simply 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 do to help:

  • 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 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 are not able to 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:

  • 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 be a sign of anxiety, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, depression, or autism.

Remember, we all need help in regulating our emotions sometimes. For kids, the behavior is communication.