Tantrums and Meltdowns are Not the Same

Sometimes I hear from other parents or people not to worry — that their children have tantrums and throw themselves on the floor too. 

It’s totally normal, they say.

Those words are supposed to make me feel better.

And I appreciate that.

The intentions are fully there.

And I sincerely thank you for your kind words.

But the problem is that my daughter doesn’t just have tantrums, sometimes she has meltdowns and they are not the same thing. Even though they appear to look the same on the surface since they are both displays of emotional dysregulation.

Before responding, I need to know which one I am dealing with first.

The biggest distinction between the two is that tantrums are deliberate and can be controlled by the child, whereas a meltdown is an emotional reaction to something that cannot be stopped or reasoned with. The child has lost control.

Tantrums are common amongst all children both typical and neurotypical and are often angry outbursts that serve as a reaction to not getting something or feeling an injustice over getting their way.

Tantrums thrive on an audience. 

There could even be manipulation used to obtain the desired result (if the parent gives in). If little Johnny is kicking and screaming on the floor because he wants cookies for dinner, he has the power to stop screaming if the parent gives in and hands him a plate of cookies. However, giving into a tantrum is never a good idea because it teaches the child to use tantrums to get their way which could lead to this behavior continuing past appropriate ages. Regardless, the most important thing to consider when approaching a tantrum is to consider whether it is intentional or emotional.

Meltdowns are often more severe reactions to sensory surroundings or a delayed reaction to multiple triggers. They sometimes spin out of control with no warning and usually have no purpose or rhythm.

For instance, a child may have a meltdown after spending too much time in a new environment with a lot of overwhelming sounds or stimuli. Maybe they saw colors on the wall that brings back memories of something that happened earlier that day, week, or recent enough to react to. Or maybe they tolerated the sights and sounds for as long as they could and have finally broken down their resistance to them. All children are different so it’s hard to pinpoint.

I remember a specific time when we were swimming in a friend’s pool. My daughter, Ally, was still exhibiting fear of water and was content holding onto the sides. We kept trying to pull her in and she cried. She literally shook with fear but she eventually let me bring her into the water once or twice. Then, she ran into the yard with the other children to play.

A neighbor a few houses away ran their lawnmower and I noticed she had covered her ears. I was proud of her for that. She learned to do that instead of screaming. She held her ears until the sound had passed.

She remained happy and the kids chased each other around in the grass. Some were hopping back and forth from the cement to the lawn.

And then our friend yelled at them for running. Specifically yelled at her, close to her face.

She grabbed her ears and started to cry.

I knew at that moment that it was the sound of his voice that set her off.

I rushed out of the pool and grabbed my towel.

By that point, which had been seconds, she had dropped to the floor and was kicking and screaming.

Our friend did not understand that this was indeed a sensory meltdown and not a tantrum and continued to yell at her and demand an apology from her for screaming. She was on the floor kicking her feet and hitting herself in the face, and as he approached her before I could get to her — she hit him and the side of his house with a small pebble when he approached her angrily. She was yelling things that made no sense. She was inconsolable. Unreasonable. And she was out of control.

I moved her flailing body to the middle of the yard, out of reach of anything she could throw or break and ran back to the patio to grab my purse, shoes, and things. And that is when he offered to help me get her to the car. I just wanted to get out of there fast.

He said to me as I held her down and buckled her into her car seat against her will,

“You need to discipline her. She can’t act that way here!”

And he stormed away.

During episodes like this, I cannot reason with her. I’m not entirely certain that she can even hear me or comprehend what I am saying. The only thing I can do is ride it out and try to calm her down by holding her or rubbing her back. Or if we are out, we go home.

That day I drove her home and put on her pajamas. I rubbed her back until she fell asleep. And if you’re wondering what it is like to be the parent of a child who had a meltdown at a BBQ, it’s horrifying. Humiliating. And it’s human. 

Meltdowns are unpredictable and for my child, they tend to happen when she reaches a point of over stimulation. As soon as I see any indicator of her self-soothing behaviors going into overdrive, I know it is time to change her environment. It took a long time for me to recognize the signs. Some days I catch her before it happens and sometimes I don’t. That day I didn’t. Days like that are hard and they drive people away. 

For my child, I can tell when she is having a tantrum when she responds to gratuities and incentives for behavior.

But when it’s a meltdown, there is no getting through to her. It’s like she can’t even hear me. All I can do is calm her down and be patient and wait for her inner storm to settle. It’s not a time for discipline or reasoning.

When you see a child acting like this….you may not know whether they are having a tantrum or melting down. But hopefully, you can understand the difference a little better now.

If you enjoyed this article, please clap for it on Medium: https://medium.com/@laurajmurphy/tantrums-and-meltdowns-are-not-the-same-4dfb1c4d5a82


One thought on “Tantrums and Meltdowns are Not the Same

  1. I hear these comments all the time. This is normal for an 8 year old! Grrr! Makes me so angry…. if they lived in our shoes for one day… thank you for writing this!

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