Quick tips for managing tantrums and meltdowns
- Quick tip 1Find a calm space.Find a calm space.
It could be an empty room, a spot outside, or even a seat in a quiet hallway. This is a space to retreat to when things get overwhelming.
- Quick tip 2Remove triggers.Remove triggers.
With sensory meltdowns, avoid or remove triggers like bright light, loud noise, or strong smells — even if you have to leave an area or stop an activity.
- Quick tip 3Figure out the need.Figure out the need.
Kids and adults have outbursts to get something they need or want — attention, help, or a material thing. Find out what that need is and think of positive ways to satisfy it.
- Quick tip 4Breathe deeply.Breathe deeply.
Deep breathing can be a quick and easy way to calm down. Breathe in through the nose, wait a few seconds, then slowly exhale through the mouth. Do this a few times.
- Quick tip 5Be empathetic.Be empathetic.
Meltdowns are beyond a person’s control and can be upsetting or embarrassing. Respond with empathy, whether it’s someone else or you who is struggling.
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:
- By changing or reducing the amount of sensory input.
- 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.