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 for children who have sensory processing issues or who lack self-control, 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 a child is trying to get something he wants or needs. Some children with learning and attention issues are more prone to tantrums. For instance, some can be impulsive and have trouble keeping their emotions in check. They may get angry or frustrated quickly.
A child may have a tantrum if he didn’t get to go first in a game of kickball. Or he might get upset when you pay attention to his sister and he wants your attention. Yelling, crying or lashing out isn’t an appropriate way for him to express his feelings, but he’s doing it for a reason. And he has some control over his behavior.
Your child may even stop in the middle of a tantrum to make sure you’re looking at him. When he sees that you’re watching him, he may pick up where he left off. His tantrum is likely to stop when he gets what he wants—or when he realizes he won’t get what he wants by acting out.
What a Sensory Meltdown Is
A meltdown is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed.
For some children, it happens when there’s too much sensory information to process. The commotion of an amusement park might set them off, for instance. For other children, 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.
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 sensory meltdown 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 your child’s brain. Once that happens, some experts think your child’s “fight or flight” response kicks in. That excess input overflows in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out or running away.
Different Strategies for Tantrums and Meltdowns
The causes of tantrums and meltdowns are different, and so are the strategies that can help stop them. It’s important to remember that the key difference between the two types of outbursts is that tantrums usually have a purpose. Children are looking for a certain response. Meltdowns are a reaction to something and are usually beyond a child’s control.
A child can often stop a tantrum if he gets what he wants, or, if he’s rewarded for using a more appropriate behavior. But a meltdown isn’t likely to stop when a child gets what he wants. In fact, he may not even know what he wants.
Meltdowns tend to end in one of two ways. One is fatigue—children wear themselves out. The other way a change in the amount of sensory input. This can help children 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 needs without giving in. Make it clear that you understand what he’s after. “I see that you want my attention. When your sister is done talking, it’ll be your turn.” Then help him see 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 the input coming at him.
Knowing the difference between tantrums and meltdowns is the key to helping your child through them. It may also help to get a better idea of the kinds of situations that can be challenging for your child. You can also explore these tips on how to deal with noise and other sensitivities.
- Give advance warning. If there are loud sounds that you know are coming, let your child know what to expect ahead of time. For instance, remind her about the self-flushing toilets and hand dryers in a public restroom. Help her find a place farther away from the noise, if possible.
- Muffle Sounds; Have earbuds, noise-canceling headphones or earplugs handy. They can provide some protection from noises that can’t be avoided. It may take some experimenting to see which work best. Keep in mind that children who also have tactile sensitivities might find certain ear protection uncomfortable. And make sure the ear protection just muffles sound. Blocking it out altogether can cause safety concerns.
- Address Safety Issues; If your child’s sensitivity makes it hard for him to filter out unimportant sounds, he might not be as able to tune in to the important ones. Those might include safety warnings like sirens or alarms. Or he might try to get away from those noises quickly without noticing what’s happening around him. Encourage him to pay attention to what he’s seeing—flashing lights or children lining up at the door—and to tell an adult if he needs to get away. Practice how to respond in these situations.
- Problem Solve with Others; Talk to your child’s teacher or IEP team about working out a signal to give your child advance warning of planned fire drills. Talk also about strategies like letting your child sit near a door during assemblies so he can slip outside if the noise becomes overwhelming. Create a safety plan for your child so teachers know what to expect and what to do. It can also help if the teacher assigns a classmate to be a “safety buddy.” That student can talk your child through the situation.
- Take New Experiences Slowly; It’s not always possible to avoid places that set off your child’s noise sensitivity. It might help if you introduce him to new places slowly and at quieter times. If you need to bring him with you to the new mega-supermarket, for example, call the store to find out when it’s the least busy. You can also check out new places ahead of time— without your child—so you can tell him what to expect.
- Help Him Set Boundaries; The sounds of an action-filled video game or of playful roughhousing can be a stressor for children with noise sensitivity. Teach your child it’s OK to set boundaries with friends. You can help him plan what to say. For instance, “I like that game, but the sound of the buzzer hurts my ears. Can we play a quieter one?”
- Use White Noise; for some children, white noise in the background helps to soften the impact of jarring or annoying sounds. A fan or a white noise machine in your child’s room may help him sleep or study better. When he’s in public, let him try listening to light sounds using earbuds. Use white noise. 15 Ways to Help Your Child Cope With Tactile Sensitivity View the tips again.