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How to Tell a Tantrum From a Meltdown

By Amanda Morin

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

Here’s how to tell the difference between a tantrum and 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, 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 surrounding 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, information, or sensory overload.
  • Intense frustration.
  • Sudden changes in routine or expectations.
  • Not being able to communicate needs and wants.
Signs you may notice

You know what your child wants or is reacting to. 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.

You may not know what your child wants or is reacting to. 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 your child’s triggers can help you avoid or defuse a meltdown or tantrum. It also helps you be more empathetic and understanding.

Find ways to help kids deal with frustration and learn to cope. And read how one family got their parenting power back after years of mismanaging meltdowns.

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  • Facebook
  • Twitter
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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom