Many people think the words “tantrum” and “meltdown” mean the same thing. And they can look very similar when you see a child in the middle of having one. But for kids who have sensory processing issues or who lack self-control, a meltdown is very different from a tantrum. Knowing the differences can help you learn how to respond in a way that better supports your child.
What a Tantrum Is
A tantrum is an outburst that happens when a child is trying to get something he wants or needs. Some kids with learning and attention issues are more prone to tantrums. For instance, some can be impulsive and have trouble keeping their emotions in check. They may get angry or frustrated quickly.
A child may have a tantrum if he didn’t get to go first in a game of kickball. Or he might get upset when you pay attention to his sister and he wants your attention. Yelling, crying or lashing out isn’t an appropriate way for him to express his feelings, but he’s doing it for a reason. And he has some control over his behavior.
Your child may even stop in the middle of a tantrum to make sure you’re looking at him. When he sees that you’re watching him, he may pick up where he left off. His tantrum is likely to stop when he gets what he wants—or when he realizes he won’t get what he wants by acting out.
What a Sensory Meltdown Is
A meltdown is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed.
For some kids, it happens when there’s too much sensory information to process. The commotion of an amusement park might set them off, for instance. For other kids, it can be a reaction to having too many things to think about. A back-to-school shopping trip could cause a tantrum that triggers a meltdown.
Here’s one way to think about too much sensory input. 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’s how a sensory meltdown works. The noise at the amusement park or the stack of clothes to try on in the dressing room at the mall is sensory input that floods your child’s brain. Once that happens, some experts think your child’s fight-or-flight response kicks in. That excess input overflows in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out or running away.
Different Strategies for Tantrums and Meltdowns
The causes of tantrums and meltdowns are different, and so are the strategies that can help stop them. It’s important to remember that the key difference between the two types of outbursts is that tantrums usually have a purpose. Kids are looking for a certain response. Meltdowns are a reaction to something and are usually beyond a child’s control.
A child can often stop a tantrum if he gets what he wants. Or if he’s rewarded for using a more appropriate behavior. But a meltdown isn’t likely to stop when a child gets what he wants. In fact, he may not even know what he wants.
Meltdowns tend to end in one of two ways. One is fatigue—kids wear themselves out. The other way a change in the amount of sensory input. This can help kids feel less overwhelmed. For example, your child may start to feel calmer when you step outside the store and leave the mall.
So how can you handle tantrums and meltdowns differently?
To tame tantrums, acknowledge what your child needs without giving in. Make it clear that you understand what he’s after. “I see that you want my attention. When your sister is done talking, it’ll be your turn.” Then help him see there’s a more appropriate behavior that will work. “When you’re done yelling, tell me calmly that you’re ready for my time.”
To manage a meltdown, help your child find a safe, quiet place to de-escalate. “Let’s leave the mall and sit in the car for a few minutes.” Then provide a calm, reassuring presence without talking too much to your child. The goal is to reduce the input coming at him.
Knowing the difference between tantrums and meltdowns is the key to helping your child through them. It may also help to get a better idea of the kinds of situations that can be challenging for your child. You can also explore tips on how to deal with noise and other sensitivities.