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Tantrum…or Meltdown?

By The Understood Team

We’ve all seen it happen—a child falling apart in a store or at the park. In these moments, people often assume what they’re seeing is a tantrum, and it could be. But it might be a meltdown. Tantrums and meltdowns can look very similar, especially when a child is in the middle of having one. 

In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Bob Cunningham break down the differences. They hear directly from kids who share what meltdowns feel like to them. They also hear from mom Amanda LaFond about recognizing—and managing—her son’s meltdowns.

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Episode Transcript

Amanda: [00:00:04] Hi. I’m Amanda Morin, a writer and in-house expert for Understood.org and a parent to kids who learn differently.

Bob: [00:00:10] And I’m Bob Cunningham. I’m a career educator and a parent. And I’m the executive director for learning development at Understood.

Amanda: [00:00:17] And we are “In It.”

Bob: [00:00:19] “In It” is a podcast from Understood. On this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, and sometimes kids. We offer support and advice for families whose kids are struggling with reading, math, focus, and other learning and thinking differences.

Amanda: [00:00:31] And today, we’re talking about meltdowns.

Kid #1: [00:00:36]

Amanda: [00:00:36] What they can tell us about our kids and what our kids might be trying to tell us.

Amanda: [00:00:45] Bob, why are we talking about meltdowns today?

Bob: [00:00:48] We’re talking about them because they’re scary and they can be challenging to handle.

Amanda: [00:00:52] And do we hear a lot about them from teachers and kids and parents like this mom.

Vanessa: [00:00:57] My name is Vanessa and I have a 4-year-old who started pre-K this year. And every day that he’s come home from school, he’s had a complete meltdown. It kind of feels like a tornado hits our house the moment we walk in and there’s no stopping it. We try to do a couple of things to calm down. You know, hit all the favorites, movies, snacks. But it doesn’t seem to get him to calm down. And it’s very new. And I’m feeling a little lost in what to do and how to get him to calm down.

Bob: [00:01:29] So here’s the thing about meltdowns: They happen for a reason. A kid having a meltdown is not just kicking and screaming for the fun of it.

Amanda: [00:01:36] No, they’re not. They’re not just kicking and screaming for the fun of it, because it’s not fun for anybody. And so what we want to do today is help you figure out what that reason is. Why are those meltdowns happening?

Bob: [00:01:48] We need to learn how to listen to them and to recognize what our kids are trying to tell us when they’re having a meltdown.

Amanda: [00:01:53] Which is really easy to say, but not as easy to do, right? Because when you have a kid who’s in the middle of a meltdown, you don’t always know what to do.

Bob: [00:02:01] There are things you can do to help prevent them from happening. There are things you can do when they are happening. And there’s a lot you can do after they happen. So that’s why we’re here. So what exactly is a meltdown?

Amanda Lafond: [00:02:20] I think nuclear. When I hear that word, you know, a nuclear meltdown. It’s when everything just kind of falls apart.

Amanda: [00:02:27] Amanda Lafond knows a lot about meltdowns. Her son Brian has been having them since he was really little. And later in the episode, we’ll hear from her about what that was like and what’s helped to make it better. But first, Bob, how does a parent know when they’re dealing with a meltdown versus a tantrum?

Bob: [00:02:43] Well, it can be confusing. The two look very similar a lot of times. For me, a tantrum is something that a child does to try to get his or her own way. They’re trying to tell you what they want and they’re exhibiting this extreme behavior because they want you to give in to whatever it is they want.

Amanda: [00:03:03] The kid who’s watching your reaction and they’re adjusting their behavior to your reaction, that’s more of a tantrum situation.

Bob: [00:03:10] Yes. That sort of conscious control over their behavior and their actions tells me it’s a tantrum.

Amanda: [00:03:16] OK, and so how does that differ in your mind from a meltdown?

Bob: [00:03:20] So a meltdown is a complete overload. The child basically loses control and they’re all about the meltdown at that time. And if you try to intervene, it probably won’t work at the moment. They can’t pull themselves out of it. That’s one of the huge differences between a meltdown and a tantrum. A meltdown is something that kind of almost needs to occur in order for a child to reset. A tantrum only needs to occur until the kid gets his way.

Amanda: [00:03:49] So we were actually curious to find out what those meltdowns feel like from the inside. And here’s what some kids shared with us.

Kid #2: [00:03:56] Kind of what meltdowns feel like to me is like completely breaking down. Jumping all over the place, crying. I’m like, really mad and like, sad, just like really out of control.

Kid #3: [00:04:13] It just happens because my body and my mind are not agreeing.

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Kid #1: [00:04:19] It makes you breathe hard. Like . My body gets furious energy. So I get really mad and I want to punch. My heart beats faster and my blood goes faster to help my body. My body gets hot.

Bob: [00:04:41] So that last one is from Amanda Lafond’s son Brian, who recently turned 9. And Amanda, I know you had a chance to talk to Amanda Lafond about Brian.

Amanda: [00:04:51] I did. And here’s what she told me. Can you tell me a little bit about Brian, who he is, what he loves to do?

Amanda L: [00:04:59] He’s super smart. He’s so, so smart. It’s kind of scary. He loves to read. I’m always having to get him more and more books. He loves Legos. We have 14 drawers of Legos organized by color.

Amanda: [00:05:18] From an early age, Amanda and her husband saw that Brian was extremely bright. But they also began to see some difficult behaviors: inflexibility, aggression. And then there were his tantrums. Amanda says they didn’t look like the tantrums other kids his age had.

Amanda L: [00:05:32] When another child is tantruming, they’re not consumed by it. And you could see that he just is completely consumed.

Amanda: [00:05:41] And what does that look like for Brian?

Amanda L: [00:05:44] Distraught. He would kind of claw at his face sometimes and then running around in circles when he was very little, hitting a lot when he was little. Oh, my gosh, the hitting. It was really bad for a while. Tears pouring down his cheeks. His cheeks would just get so red. It just felt like two ol’ fire engine red cheeks. And inconsolable.

Amanda: [00:06:09] Bob, I do think it’s worth noting that what Brian’s meltdowns look like aren’t the only way that meltdowns can look. Some kids get really loud and aggressive. But other kids have something that I call almost a shutdown. These are the kids who get really quiet, maybe crawl under a table, and are completely unresponsive when you talk to them. Have you seen meltdowns like that?

Bob: [00:06:27] Yeah, I sure have. And it’s, you know, it still is a meltdown because the child who’s under the table and completely unresponsive is really trying to manage that sort of full mind and body experience. They’re just managing it in a different way.

Amanda: [00:06:43] Getting back to her story, Amanda and her husband worried that something was wrong with Brian and wanted to have him evaluated. But they were told that Brian was too young to be diagnosed with a disability. They did start working with a child psychologist, and one of the things she suggested was that they try introducing small changes to Brian’s routine to help him learn to handle change better. Drive home a different way, for example. And that, Amanda says, led to a breakthrough for her.

Amanda L: [00:07:10] I guess he was 5 years old, and one day traffic was heavy after school when I was picking him up. And I’m like, well, you know, I’m gonna go the other way home and see if traffic is better this way, because I really just want to get home the quickest way. I didn’t even know that I had established such a routine with him. And I went home a different way and he lost it. He was in his little harness in the backseat and he just started kicking and screaming: “You’re going the wrong way. You need to turn around, go back that way. That’s not the right way. We can’t get home.” He was convinced that if we went a different way, we would never make it home and the world would end.

Amanda: [00:07:56] What was it about that one meltdown that led you to think differently about what was going on with him?

Amanda L: [00:08:02] I knew always there was something different from the time he was like 12 months old, 18 months old, you know, the lining up stuff and inability to work with others. Things like that. The rigidity. But that particular meltdown just made me see that it was more for Brian. My mom and, I don’t know if you remember this, “Frasier” was really popular couple of years ago. The people would say “he’s so extra” like that. My kid really is extra and he is extra smart and he is extra sensitive and he is extra scared and he is extra everything. And there is no in-between for him.

Amanda L: [00:08:47] And that meltdown helped me realize everything is all-or-nothing for him.

Amanda: [00:09:07] I love that idea of extra. But I also think, Bob, that it’s probably extra scary, too, when your kid’s that extra.

Bob: [00:09:14] I think it is. Meltdowns are hugely challenging for parents because they don’t understand what’s going on and they worry that there’s something really wrong with their child.

Amanda: [00:09:23] I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this story. When my son was very little and started having meltdowns, I was convinced it wasn’t an emotional thing. And I actually asked the doctor to make sure he wasn’t having seizures because they seemed so like out of the blue and violent and scary to me.

Bob: [00:09:41] It is hard. And you in that situation did exactly what I always recommend parents do. You went to a doctor, you went to a professional. A doctor saw your child, helped you figure out what really was going on. It wasn’t seizures, but it was something else. And that’s sometimes the case. It can be a sign that a child has sensory issues or ADHD or autism or OCD. And there are a lot of things that meltdowns can be associated with.

Amanda: [00:10:08] The problem with meltdowns, though, is that you don’t always see what’s going on, if you’re not seeing what’s triggering your child. And I think triggering a sort of like a big word for what’s making them feel so overwhelmed, right?

Bob: [00:10:21] Right. And that’s the first thing you look for, right? And it’s an antecedent. It’s a trigger. There are a whole bunch of great words, but it’s whatever brings on that meltdown.

Amanda: [00:10:30] Right.

Bob: [00:10:31] And it’s actually usually pretty consistent for a kid. If you can identify that trigger, then you’re halfway to figuring out what you need to do.

Amanda: [00:10:40] It’s about trying to recognize those patterns. When do they usually happen? Where? What’s going on before and that kind of thing. And here’s what Amanda had to say when she did recognize those patterns.

Amanda L: [00:10:52] If things aren’t going the way I know Brian expects it, I know to be on the lookout. He thinks things should be a certain way. I know also that he’s got sensory issues. So if we’re in a loud and crowded environment, I know to be watching him extra carefully.

Amanda: [00:11:09] And Amanda says it’s not only frustration that can trigger a meltdown.

Amanda L: [00:11:14] Well, if he gets just way too happy, then it’s easier to crash. Kind of like a roller coaster, you know? Like I said, there’s no even plane he’s on. He’s either up high or down low emotionally. And if you’re up high, you have a lot farther to fall.

Amanda: [00:11:31] These days, if Brian is on the verge of a meltdown, Amanda can usually tell. His body gets rigid, he gets kind of quiet and tense. And at that point, it’s often possible to steer him back on course.

Amanda L: [00:11:42] I often say, well, what can make this better? And he will tell me a lot of times what he needs to make it better. And if I can’t do that, I’ll ask, “Well, that’s not possible. But what if we do this?” He wants to figure the problem out if you catch that meltdown early.

Bob: [00:12:03] I have seen kids be able to learn how to gauge their own sort of intensity level.

Amanda: [00:12:09] Well, I think sometimes it helps to tell a kid, this is what I see when you’re revving up to a place where you might melt down. I see you sort of pacing. I see your face get red.

Bob: [00:12:19] Right.

Amanda: [00:12:19] I see those kinds of things. If they recognize that, you can say, why don’t you go take a walk or…

Bob: [00:12:24] Exactly. And it’s that second part that I think is so important, right? So if you’re just recognizing that you’re gonna have a meltdown, that’s only going to get you halfway, right? So the second thing is figure out what your child can do instead that might help prevent that meltdown. A physical response. It almost has to be a physical response. Kids develop their own strategies and sometimes adults kind of extinguish that.

Amanda: [00:12:50] So kids who sort of nervously tap or they flap a little bit or they jump up and down. It’s actually releasing that anxiety for them. And we’re, as adults, we often say, like, that’s a little weird, don’t do that. But what we’re doing is we’re taking away their natural response to reducing their own anxiety.

Heidi: [00:13:12] Hi, this is Heidi from Maryland. Meltdowns, when my kids started having them, I really just thought that it was just bad behavior and they were just acting up.

Heidi: [00:13:24] But after several years of dealing with three kids with ADHD and sensory issues, I realized that as embarrassing and frustrating as it is for us for them to have a meltdown in public, it is really painful for them because they don’t know how to turn it off. Sometimes it is a can’t instead of a won’t. It is hard to tell the difference sometimes, though. Thanks. Bye.

Caller: [00:13:51] We would have a daily meltdown, and we honestly had one this morning, that her socks don’t feel right, that she can’t get them right. And we can’t get out the door. And the issue here is she has to wear socks and sneakers to school. It’s like their rule. And almost every morning we’re having a nuclear meltdown where she’s laying on the ground and writhing in clear discomfort because her socks never feel right. And that is symptomatic of a bigger issue. And in a general sense, it’s a sensory issue. But like, it was the pattern of the meltdowns that made me realize a kid doesn’t melt down every day about socks. This is a bigger issue.

Amanda: [00:14:42] Bob, I think Amanda’s really in a good place where she’s figured out what’s going to happen. She can catch it before it goes nuclear. You know, but the reality is there’s still gonna be those times when that meltdown goes nuclear. So, what do you do when a kid’s having a meltdown?

Bob: [00:14:59] I think that if you are the kind of parent who likes to intervene right away, or you’re the kind of parent who likes to touch your child to help them feel reassured and things like that, when you have a child who has a meltdown, you have to make sure that that is actually what’s happening, right? So, if I touch your shoulder or if I give you a really tight hug, does that help you or not? I’ve seen a lot of parents who are very affectionate grab hold of a child who’s having a meltdown, and the meltdown goes from zero to 10 instantly. That’s often the case. Not always. I’ve also seen kids who want their mom to come and grab ahold of them and give them a hug. And it helps them feel safe and secure and they calm themselves down that way. So, again, it comes back to how well do you know your child?

Amanda: [00:15:51] Well, I also think it’s about sort of putting your own instincts in check sometimes. Because if your instinct is to go hug your child and they don’t want you to do that.

Bob: [00:16:01] That’s right.

Amanda: [00:16:01] Right? Here’s what Brian says helps him when he’s melting down.

Brian: [00:16:04] Talking out the problem in my mind helps me change my body actions. And I want people to leave me alone. When a grown-up tells me to get over it, it makes it worse because it’s forcing.

Amanda: [00:16:20] That never works. I mean, I don’t think it works for anybody. (laughter)

Bob: [00:16:23] You know, if Brian or any other kid could just get over it, they would. Kids don’t like to have meltdowns.

Amanda: [00:16:30] Right.

Bob: [00:16:30] It’s something that they feel the overwhelming need to do. It’s not something they do because they like it.

Amanda: [00:16:36] One of the things I think parents can do, too, is work really closely with the teachers, because what teachers may see in the classroom can be really helpful for parents to know for home. So kids may be able to sort of rein it in at school in a different way.

Bob: [00:16:51] Right. Or vice versa. Talk to any other adult who spends a lot of time with your child in a different environment and you can all learn from each other. This is a situation where parents and teachers and doctors and clinicians and everybody else can learn together how best to help the child.

Amanda: [00:17:11] And it’s the learning that’s important because just talking to somebody doesn’t stop the meltdown. It just gives you more information about it.

Bob: [00:17:17] And the more you explain meltdowns to others who are with your child, like teachers, the better off everyone will be, because meltdowns aren’t a sign of bad parenting.

Amanda: [00:17:31] Thank you.

Bob: [00:17:33] Meltdowns are something that your child needs to experience or needs to find a way around. And every adult can help your child with that. But first, they have to understand what the meltdown is. They have to understand that your child is trying to communicate something which is really they don’t have the language, they don’t have the tools, they don’t have the emotional maturity. They don’t have the kind of thinking capacity at this point in their life to do something other than the meltdown. So as you help them build that, just helping everyone understand what’s going on is kind of role number one.

Amanda: [00:18:07] And once kids have the tools to understand their own meltdowns and they’ve worked really hard and you’ve worked really hard with them, you really can move forward. And sometimes you need to reframe what that progress in moving forward looks like.

Amanda L: [00:18:18] You know, there’s achievements that my kid makes that don’t look like achievements to other people.

Amanda: [00:18:24] When they rebound from a meltdown and they don’t have one and that’s the rest of the day.

Amanda L: [00:18:28] Right.

Amanda: [00:18:29] That’s an achievement.

Amanda L: [00:18:32] That’s an achievement! When they don’t have a meltdown in a situation, they just get angry and stomp off.

Amanda: [00:18:36] When they have a tantrum, you celebrate, right?

Amanda L: [00:18:39] Yeah. And then they just say, oh, and they roll their eyes. You’re like, yes, he’s accomplished eye-rolling!

Amanda: [00:18:47] I love that. You have accomplished eye-rolling.

Bob: [00:18:49] That’s right. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of eye-rolling as something that you accomplish. But in this case, it really is.

Amanda: [00:18:54] It’s an achievement because it’s not a meltdown. It’s just sort of a normal kid reaction to things. And I think the one last thing I want parents to know is if you go to a professional and they say it’s a behavior problem, it’s a parenting problem…

Amanda & Bob: [00:19:08] Find a different professional.

Bob: [00:19:09] Right.

Amanda: [00:19:18] You’ve been listening to “In It,” a podcast from Understood. Our website is Understood.org, where you can find all sorts of free resources for people raising kids who learn and think differently.

Bob: [00:19:28] We also want to hear what you think of our show. “In It” is for you. So we want to make sure that you’re getting what you need. Go to u.org/podcast to share your thoughts and also to find resources. That’s the letter “U,” as in Understood, dot O R G slash podcast.

Amanda: [00:19:45] You can also rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Spotify, wherever you download your podcasts from. It’s a great way to let other people know about “In It.” And if you like what you heard today, please also tell somebody about it. Share it with the parents you know. Share it with somebody else who might have a child who learns and thinks differently. Or just send a link to your child’s teacher.

Bob: [00:20:05] You can subscribe to “In It” on Apple Podcasts. Follow us on Spotify, or keep up with us however you listen to podcasts. Between episodes, you can find Understood on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or YouTube. Or visit our website.

Bob: [00:20:17] U, that’s the letter “U,” dot O R G. Our show is produced by Julie Subrin and Sara Ivry. Mike Errico wrote our theme music, and Laura Kusnyer is our executive director of editorial content.

Amanda: [00:20:29] Thanks for listening, everyone, and thanks for always being in it with us.

Bob: [00:20:40] “In It” is a production of Understood.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom