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

parentingUpdated December 5, 2022 Opinion

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 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. While others thought the mother was exacerbating the situation. And some people remarked that the child might have some underlying Sensory Processing Disorder issues since she was not a toddler.1 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, your family’s mental and emotional health may rest in the understanding that there is a difference between what many consider 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 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. Tantrums can occur in children up to age 4.2 So how can you tell if your child is throwing a tantrum? Consider these signs and tips for handling them:

  • 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 undesired task.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.3
  • 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.4

Meltdowns

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

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. We’ve just evolved to understand what is socially acceptable and what can be expressed privately. But 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:

  • Meltdowns are based on senses being overstimulated, leading to a flight, fight, or freeze.5 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:

  • 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.

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

References:
1. https://www.webmd.com/#155221145582
2. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001922.htm
3. https://study.com/academy/
4. https://childmind.org/
5. https://www.heysigmund.com/

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