How to tell a tantrum from a meltdown

By Amanda Morin

When a child is upset and frustrated, and seems to be acting out, is it a tantrum or a meltdown? Lots of people use these words interchangeably. And even though they look similar, tantrums and meltdowns are different. And how to handle them depends on which it is.

Here’s how to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

 TantrumMeltdown
What it is
  • An angry or frustrated outburst.
  • Kids might yell, cry, lash out, and hold their breath.
  • Kids typically have some control over their behavior during a tantrum.
  • A tantrum tends to stop when kids get what they want, when they get out of what they don’t want to do, or when they give up. (But tantrums can turn into meltdowns.)
  • A reaction to feeling overwhelmed.
  • Kids might yell, cry, lash out, run away, and/or shut down and withdraw.
  • Meltdowns are a full-body reaction that are out of kids’ control.
  • A meltdown tends to stop when kids wear themselves out or when there’s a change in their surroundings or what they’re experiencing.
What triggers it
  • A desire to get something, avoid something, or get a reaction from someone.
  • Frustration.
  • Not being able to communicate needs and wants.
  • Overload. That can be an overload of emotions or information, or it can be sensory overload.
  • Intense frustration.
  • Sudden changes in routine or expectations.
  • Not being able to communicate needs and wants.
Signs you may notice

Kids having tantrums may also:

  • Pay attention to what’s going on around them.
  • Watch how people react and change their behavior to match it.
  • Try to bargain for a solution while yelling.
  • Stop the tantrum once they get what they want or realize they won’t get what they want by acting out.

Kids having meltdowns may also:

  • Not seem to have control over what they’re doing and look panicked.
  • Shut down or try to escape.
  • Not process what’s going on around them.
  • Not respond to what people say or how they react.
  • Lose their ability to problem-solve and negotiate.
  • Need time to calm down and recover once the meltdown ends.
   

Knowing a child’s triggers can help to defuse a meltdown or a tantrum. Find ways to help kids deal with frustration and learn to cope. Then read how one family got their parenting power back after years of mismanaging meltdowns.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Vanessa M. Pastore, MA is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration. She has a private clinic in New York City.