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TANTRUM and MELTDOWNS – What’s the difference?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

A meltdown is very different from a tantrum. As a parent if you know the difference then that can help to learn how to respond in a way that best supports your child.

A Tantrum is an outburst that happens when a child is trying to get something they want.  Temper tantrums are very typical for young children. But some children are more prone to tantrums even after those early years have long gone. They continue to be impulsive and find that they get angry or frustrated quickly. They are unable to manage their emotions.  Children with these challenges might have a tantrum if they don’t manage to score a goal, get upset if their  siblings get more attention than they do. And they could be expressing their frustration or anger by shouting, crying, kicking or just lashing out.  These children have no control over their behaviour. You may even notice that when a child is having a tantrum, they may stop in the middle of a tantrum to make sure their parent is looking at them.   Tantrums generally stop  when children get what they want or when they realize they won’t get what they want by acting out.

A Meltdown is very different from a tantrum. It is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. For some children, it happens when they’re getting sensory overload- that means too much information coming in from their senses.

Children may become upset by certain sounds, sights, tastes and textures. Some children get affected by the sound of the vacuum cleaner or loud music, others might not like the sensations/texture of the clothes they are wearing, and some others may have a reactions to  having too many things to think about. These children find it hard to process too much sensory input all at once. Too much sensory input can be overwhelming not just for kids, but for adults too.

A great metaphor that describes sensory input would be for you to imagine filling a small water pitcher. Most of the time, you can control the flow of water and fill the pitcher a little at a time. But sometimes the water flow is too strong and the pitcher overflows before you can turn the water off. That is how a meltdown based on sensory overload works.

Some experts think the when a meltdown happens the “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. And hence that results in the form of shouting, crying, kicking, just lashing out or sometimes even just shutting down completely.

Different Strategies for Tantrums and Meltdowns

The Strategies to help stop tantrums and meltdowns are different. A key difference for you as a parent to remember is that Tantrums usually have a purpose. The child is looking for a certain response. However, Meltdowns are a reaction to something and are usually beyond the child’s control.

Children can often stop a tantrum once they get what they want, or when they’re rewarded for using a more appropriate behaviour. That is not the case with meltdowns. Meltdowns usually come to an end if the child gets tired or fatigued or if the sensory input changes.  As soon as there is a change in the amount of sensory input, the child starts feeling less overwhelmed.

When your child has a tantrum, acknowledge what your child wants without giving in. Make it clear that you understand what your child is after. Examples can be saying things like “I see that you want my attention” ; “When your sister is done talking, it’ll be your turn” ; “When you have calmed down, that will tell me that you are ready for my time.”

To manage a meltdown, help your child find a safe, quiet place to de-escalate. Provide a space for the child that is calm and be there giving a reassuring presence without talking too much to the child.

Watching your child either having a tantrum or a meltdown can be stressful and if it happens in a public place then the stress can be accompanied by a feeling of embarrassment for the parent. However, remember that these behaviors are common and they can improve.

The key thing to remember is that Meltdowns are more extreme than tantrums and handling them is more complicated.

Some tips to manage a Meltdown are

Know what your child’s triggers are. They are not the same for every child. For some children, it might be sensory or emotional overload and for others, it might be too many demands, unexpected changes, pain or fear. If you know your child’s triggers, you can try to avoid them.Watch for and take note of patterns by keeping a dairy. This could include

  • What happened prior to the meltdown?

  • When did the behaviour take place?

  • Who else was around?

  • Did that person challenge your child?

  • Where was your child when the situation arose? Indoors/ Outdoors/ In a public place/In the car?

  • How could you tell your child was getting upset?

  • Were there physical signs (stomping his feet, clenching his fists)?

  • Did he have the words to express her feelings? If so, what was her tone of voice?

  • Did he/ she fully spiral out of control? Or did they remain somewhat in control?

  • Could you tell that the situation was escalating?

The dairy will help you keep trackof when your  gets more anxious or has more trouble at a certain time of day. For instance, if meltdowns tend to happen close to mealtimes or bedtime, hunger or fatigue may be triggers. Or you may notice that where they happen have something in common, such as loud noises or crowds.

3. Recognizing the signs of escalation can be important. Your child may show warning signs that they are having trouble coping. If you can catch them early enough, you may be able to help them calm down before they become out of control. Common warning signs include:

  • Trouble thinking clearly, making decisions or responding to questions

  • Repeating thoughts or questions over and over

  • Refusing to follow directions or cooperate

  • Trying to shut out sensory input or attempting to run away or hide

  • Increased movement, like fidgeting or pacing

4. Try to take attention away from the trigger. With some children, the escalation phase can            be interrupted. You can try and distract the child with something else to do or by redirecting their attention.

5. Be patient and keep your calm and don’t shout as this might make it worse.  Give your child space and more time to process what you say to them. Use short, concrete sentences that take away your child’s need to make decisions.

What can you as a parent do to support your child during a Meltdown?

1.Make sure your child knows you are there, and you understand she may feel scared and out of control. Keep your voice and body language calm and in control. It may take trial and error for you to know if your child prefers to have some space,  a hug or touch during a meltdown.

2. If your child is throwing things make sure that no one is in danger and that no one is going to get hurt.

3. If you are in public  try to help your child move to a quieter place. If you are at home, see if you can get your child to go to her calm/safe place which could be their bedroom or a place that they choose.

4. Keep things quiet and try not to crowd your child. If you’re at home and your child isn’t able or willing to move to their room, try standing off to the side.

5. Think about how best it would be for you to re-engage with your child after the meltdown without reigniting it.

Keep in mind that managing meltdowns and taming tantrums takes practice. Learning to recognize the signs and teach your child coping skills can help you both find ways to respond more effectively in the future.

Here is a list of some Coping Skills

  • Help your child by teaching them to give words to feelings. If the child is ableto talk about how they’re feeling and what may be causing it, their emotions can feel more manageable. You can also use a visual chart to help them identify their emotions.

  • If you know your child’s triggers as discussed above. Think about which situations are toughest for your child. then you can change your own behaviour to help them cope.

  • Stick with what they love

  • Point out that they already have ways to calm themselves down.

  • Overtime, they may turn to these coping mechanisms on their own.

  • When your child has a meltdown give them your full attention. If they see that you are  distracted, they may feel even more out of control.

  • Learn to be Empathetic towards your child. You’ve probably learned the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you’d like them to treat you. But empathy in meltdowns relies on the Platinum Rule i.e. treat others the way they want (and need) to be treated. By doing that it does not mean that that you are giving into your child’s whims and fancies. It means you are  taking their feelings and challenges into account.

  • Ask your child directly about their feelings and don’t assume what they might be feeling. Children more often than not give nonverbal cues about how they are feeling or what they are struggling with. It is important to be sensitive to those cues. Giving them a  chance to talk and explain which will allow them to learn to make decisions and will be great for their growth and learning.

  • A lot of the children who suffer from sensory overload will keep it together in school and as soon as they see you will break down and have a meltdown. So, it is  important for you to keep it together. That does not however mean that you have to bury your own feelings. It also does not mean you have to agree with them or accept their behaviour. It just means that you are giving them a listening ear and trying to see things from their point of view.

  • Do not use  “You” statements as they may make your child feel defensive and not want to listen to you.Using “I Statements”is more positive way talking about situations without placing blame. As an example you could say For instance, “I know that you upset, but when you shout and talk over me I feel that you cannot hear what I am saying instead of  “Why are you shouting  and not listening to a word I am saying.”

  • Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered in one word.  For example, asking, “ Was something at school hard for you today?” invites more conversation than “ Did you have a rough day at school today?” It also helps you explore the problems and solutions in more details.

  • As a parent the instinct is to jump to fix things and immediately try to find solutions. That might make you feel better, but it may not help your child. Try to just listen and understand what’s wrong. Your child might not even want you to fix their problem. That is something for you to  discuss with then after they have calmed down. If you allow your child to make decisions then this will allow  them to become independent and resolve their own problems.

  • Seek help from professionals to teach your child coping strategies.

Namita Bhatia
NLP Practitioner & Hypnotherapist


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