It can be hard to tell the difference by just looking at an upset child.
Kids don’t have meltdowns on purpose, and they can feel bad about them afterward.
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 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 kids are trying to get something they want or need. Temper tantrums are pretty typical for toddlers and preschoolers. Once kids have more language to express themselves, tantrums tend to subside a little.
But some kids are more prone to tantrums even after those early years. They continue to be
impulsive and find keeping their emotions in check challenging. They may get angry or frustrated quickly.
Kids with these challenges might have a tantrum if they don’t score in a game of kickball, for example. Or get upset when siblings get more attention than they do. Yelling, crying, and lashing out aren’t appropriate ways to express feelings, but it’s happening for a reason. And kids ultimately have some control over that behavior.
Kids may even stop in the middle of a tantrum to make sure their parent or caregiver is looking at them and then pick up where they left off. The tantrum is likely to stop when kids get what they want—or when they realize they won’t get what they want by acting out.
What a Meltdown Is
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A meltdown is very different from a tantrum. It’s a reaction to feeling overwhelmed.
For some kids, it happens when they’re getting too much sensory input—that’s information coming in from their senses. Kids may become upset by certain sounds, sights, tastes, and textures. You might hear this called
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.
A meltdown is a reaction to trying to process too much sensory input all at once. Too much sensory input can be overwhelming—not just for kids, but
for adults, too.
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 meltdown based on sensory overload 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 the brain. Once that happens, some experts think the “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. That excess input overflows in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out, or running away—or even just shutting down completely.
Different Strategies for Tantrums and Meltdowns
The causes of tantrums and meltdowns are different, and there are strategies that can help stop each of them. A key difference to remember is that tantrums usually have a purpose. Kids are looking for a certain response. Meltdowns are a reaction to something. And even if they start out as tantrums, they’re usually beyond a child’s control.
Kids can often stop a tantrum once they get what they want, or when they’re
rewarded for using a more appropriate behavior. That’s not the case with meltdowns.
Meltdowns tend to end in one of two ways. One is fatigue—kids wear themselves out. The other is 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 wants without giving in. Make it clear that you understand what your child is after. “I see that you want my attention. When your sister is done talking, it’ll be your turn.” Then help your child see that 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 how much information is coming in.
Watching your child have a tantrum or a meltdown and worrying about other people’s reactions can be stressful. It may help for both you and your child to know that these behaviors are common and they can improve.