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The difference between tantrums and meltdowns

By Amanda Morin

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Many people think that tantrums and meltdowns are the same thing and that only kids have them. These behaviors can look similar when they’re happening. But a meltdown is very different from a tantrum. And some people have outbursts even as teens or adults.

Knowing the differences between tantrums and meltdowns can help you learn how to respond in a helpful way.

What are tantrums?

Tantrums are common in young kids. Many toddlers and preschoolers don’t yet have the language to express themselves or the self-control to keep emotions in check. They may yell, cry, or stomp their feet when they’re frustrated or are trying to get something they want or need. 

As kids develop, they usually have fewer tantrums. But some kids keep having these strong emotional reactions as they get older. As teens or adults, they may be quick to get upset when something doesn’t go the way they hoped it would. 

Still, people usually have some control over their behavior. Imagine a child who briefly stops mid-tantrum to make sure someone is looking at them. Tantrums usually end once the person gets what they want or don’t see a benefit to continuing. But sometimes, a tantrum spirals out of control and turns into a meltdown. 

How meltdowns are different

A meltdown is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. It’s usually not something people can control.

Lots of situations can trigger meltdowns, depending on the person. For example, pain, fear, or unexpected changes to routines or life situations like a divorce or job loss.

For many kids and adults, meltdowns happen when they get too much information from their senses. The brain is too stimulated by certain sounds, sights, tastes, or textures. It gets overwhelmed trying to process it all. This is called sensory overload

Some experts think overload sparks a fight-or-flight response. Intense feelings come out in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out, fleeing, or even shutting down.

Meltdowns tend to end in one of two ways:

  1. By changing or reducing the amount of sensory input. 

  2. By just getting worn out. Some people may fall asleep. Others retreat inward and are unresponsive to the people around them as the nervous system resets. 

Dive deeper

For parents and caregivers: What to do next

Since tantrums and meltdowns are so different, you need to handle them in different ways. With tantrums, it helps to acknowledge what your child wants without giving in. With meltdowns, find a safe, quiet place for your child to calm down.

Also, it’s important to know if there’s something behind your child’s difficulties. Try to look for patterns in behavior and talk to your child’s teacher and medical provider. 

Specific tips:

For educators: What to do next

Challenging behavior in the classroom is hard for everyone. But when kids are having a meltdown, they really can’t control it. And afterward, they often feel bad about it. It may be difficult in the moment, but try to respond with empathy .

Work closely with your student’s family. Describe what you see in class and find out what’s been happening at home. You may also be able to share with each other strategies that have worked at home and in school.

Specific tips:

If you struggle with meltdowns: What to do next

Knowing the triggers for your sensory meltdowns — crowded places, certain food smells, bright lights — helps you take steps to avoid them. You can also think about where you can go to calm yourself if you start feeling overwhelmed.

You may be able to get accommodations at school or at work to help you avoid triggers. These are changes to the environment around you that remove barriers to doing your best work.

For example, you might be able to sit in a quiet place to take tests. Or maybe you can work in an area that has less noise or fewer people. Learn more about accommodations at school , college , and work .

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