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How to tell the difference between tantrums and meltdowns

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Not all outbursts are the same, and how you respond can have a big impact on your child’s behavior. Watch or listen to this seven-minute episode of “What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns,” where psychologist Dr. Andrew Kahn explains how to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown and what to do next.

Timestamps

  • (0:35) Why it helps to know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown

  • (4:45) How to tell a tantrum from a meltdown

  • (6:09) What you can do ahead of time 

Related resources

Episode transcript

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns."

I'm Dr. Andrew Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist who has been working with kids, teens, and adults for more than 20 years. I'm also the father of a teenager, so I have a lot of personal and professional experience when it comes to parenting. I'll be your host.

Today's episode is about how to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, and how you should respond to one versus the other. 

OK, let's begin.

(0:35) Why it helps to know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown

So, let's talk about why it helps to know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. You see, tantrums and meltdowns aren't clinical terms. But many parents find the distinction helpful, and need to respond to each in different ways.

So, in a meltdown, your child is not in control. Meltdowns happen when kids lose control of their emotional functioning. It's a form of energy explosion. And your child may not be able to hear what you're saying or respond to you during those times. Your main job is to keep your child safe until the meltdown is over.

Now, in a tantrum, the goal is often your child trying to get your attention, or something they want, or to avoid some responsibility or activity. Tantrums have a purpose. And unfortunately for you, as a parent, your child's behavior is designed to wear you down until you give up and give them what they want. How you respond can either add fuel to the tantrum or help it end sooner.

Let me give you a caveat here: If your child's behavior doesn't get them what they want, it can sometimes worsen, even a lot. We psychologists call this an "extinction burst." That's where the behavior increases a lot before finally going away. It's a classic example of things getting worse before they can get better. 

In some cases, a child can become so upset that their tantrum can become a meltdown if their emotions take over. Catching your child's behavior as early as you can, before it escalates, can help prevent it from becoming a meltdown.

So, let me give you an example: In my daily work, I often ask parents to experiment with leaving the room when their child is having a tantrum. 

So, safety caveat here first. Remember: if your child is hurting themselves or others, stop and get them help first. If you've done a safety check and you know your child is safe in this moment, you can move on.

Many times, the child's behavior and intensity will change dramatically when the parent is no longer in view. A child in a tantrum can't get what they want without you, the parent. So sometimes leaving the room can be really, really powerful.

If your child is acting out to avoid some task, you may need to remind them that they still need to do what they've been asked to do, and perhaps creating some strategies or helping them get started by breaking the tasks down into smaller chunks — again, this can be super helpful.

But with a meltdown, a parent leaving the room doesn't make a difference. The child doesn't notice what the parent is doing.

So, these are some of the reasons why it's important for you as a parent to be able to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

OK, let me give you a real-world example. 

Some years ago I was doing a therapy session in the home with the family of a 6-year-old child who had frequent tantrums and refusal behaviors at home. Now, at the time of our first session, the parent noted that tantrums were really quite common at bedtime. Once the child was told that it's time to start bedtime routines, he would drop to the ground. He would scream and cry and wail and refuse to move.

His parents would spend 20 to 30 minutes each night cajoling him and trying to reassure him that it would be OK to get moving towards bed. They were exhausted every night and would eventually lie in bed with him until he fell asleep since he was so distraught.

Now, on the evening of our session, I asked them, you know, "What happens if you don't engage with him when he drops to the floor?" Well, the answer was they didn't know. You see, in these situations, we decided that it's important to try to experiment. And that night we decided to experiment with his routine.

The one key was that the child's behavior during these tantrums wasn't noticeably dangerous, and he didn't hurt himself or others or damage property.

So, the parents provided him with a prompt that it was time to get ready for bed. And, as predicted, he dropped to the floor. The parents gave him a cue in a space where they knew they could observe him but the child could not see them. And this way it was perfect because they left the room — the child couldn't see. 

Within seconds of the parents leaving, the child looked up and seemed confused. He didn't know what was happening. He literally walked around the room looking for his parents. And once he found them, he dropped to the floor again to restart his tantrum.

You see, the only thing that kept the tantrum going was the parents' attention. Take away that attention, and the tantruming stopped. Bring back the parents' attention, and the tantrum started up again.

Remember: Tantrums and meltdowns are different and require different things from you as a parent.

(4:45) How to tell a tantrum from a meltdown 

OK, so how to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

There are a few things to look for:

  • Does your child respond to you or look around to see if you're paying attention?

  • Does your child demand something specific or make sense when they're talking to you?

  • Does the child fail to respond no matter what you say or do?

If you think it's a tantrum, turn your body away or step outside the door and observe if there are any changes. Notice how your child responds. Does your child stop what they're doing? If yes, that's a tantrum.

Now, a safety caveat here again. If your child is harming themselves or others, stop what you're doing and make sure they're safe.

Now let's look at a parent tip here. Check in with yourself. Be aware of your own reactions. Looking upset, showing a lot of emotion, having a raised voice — this can fuel your child's reactions and make things worse unintentionally. Stay calm, or at least do your best to pretend that you're staying calm. Our whole next episode is about how to look calm and fake it till you make it.

Now let's take a look at meltdowns. You know, what can you do as a parent if your child is having a meltdown? Scan the space for safety and make sure your child isn't in danger or if things around them could hurt them or others. Stay present, observe them carefully, and wait it out for the storm to end. Because there's not much you can do. 

Remember: Tantrums and meltdowns are different and require different things from you as a parent.

(6:09) What you can do ahead of time

So, what can you do ahead of time? OK, to help you build this new skill, I want you to read an article on Understood.org. It's called "Taming tantrums vs. managing meltdowns." We'll include a link in our show notes. This article dives deeper into what we've been talking about today and offers even more strategies that can help in heated moments.

OK, folks, that's it for today's episode. 

I hope you'll join me for the next episode on how to stay calm during your child's outbursts.

If there's one thing you can take away from this episode, it's how you respond to your child's behavior dramatically impacts what happens next and what they do in the future. We're here to help you figure that out.

You've been listening to "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns," from the Understood Podcast Network. 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.


What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also edited the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Host

  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.

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