1) Meltdown and tantrums often look the same but they are fundamentally different.
2) A tantrum is essentially a primitive, behavioral way for a child to get what she wants. Typically a young child lacks the social or language skills to express their wants another way and they have learned that yelling and screaming is an effective way to get what they want.
3) A meltdown is a child’s response to being overwhelmed by her own emotional experience or by the environment or both.
Example A: A child throws a tantrum in a grocery store in order to get candy.
Example B: A child has a meltdown in a grocery store because they are tired, and hypersensitive to sound and light and crowds.
In example A the child is consoled by the candy and calms down immediately.
In example B the child might be momentarily happy or distracted by candy but is essentially still overwhelmed. Candy does not fix the problem because the problem was about wanting candy in the first place.
4) How can you tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown? Initially it’s not easy. Tantrums tend to begin when a child hears the word “no” or is denied something they want. Tantrums also can start small, with some whining, and then ramp up as the child continues to be denied what they want. A meltdown, however, can have a longer period of time where the child is uneasy, anxious, asking to leave, or needing comfort. This is often due to their feelings of internal overwhelm and anxiety. A child may try to “hold it together” as the adults don’t see any serious problems that would lead a child to feel anxious, but once their sensory system is completely overwhelmed, they completely melt down with crying, yelling and overall discharge of their stress.
5) What can be done to lessen tantrums and meltdowns?
It is generally possible to reduce and eliminate tantrums by setting clear limits, remaining consistent, calm and firm. Once your child learns “no means no,” they will no longer rely on tantrums to test your limits and try to get their way.
Meltdowns are typically about dis-regulation. This means the child cannot find a way to self-soothe or self-regulate in the face of sensory input or emotional experience such as anger or anxiety. Typically children need to be carefully taught self-regulation and emotional regulations skills.
While children having meltdowns also need clear calm and consistent limits they also need us as parents to meet them where they are at and remove overwhelming input so that they can regulate and begin to build tolerance and skill.
In other words, often, at the start of this process, your best defense is a good offense!
By this we mean that you the parent need to show a great deal of flexibility, and prioritize maintaining calm. We need to pick and choose our battles. We need to be realistic about what might be too much right now. The child who has a tantrum to get candy at the supermarket will adjust and regain calm once they realize that candy is not forthcoming (granted this can take a few times of consistency on the part of the parent). But the child having the meltdown may need to stop going to the supermarket for a while. The supermarket may simply just be too overwhelming.
When we understand that a child is having meltdowns we can model flexibility, empathy and tolerance. We can help them build up to doing more and navigating difficult feelings and environments. We can also, over time, help them know their own limits and teach them how to problem solve.
Sign up for our newsletter for our next installment of “Meltdowns vs Tantrums: A User Guide for Parents,” when we will explore how to handle meltdowns “in the moment” to help your child re-regulate and calm down as soon as they are able.