As children grow and develop, they often experience strong emotions that they struggle to control. In these moments, it’s not uncommon for a child to have a “tantrum” or “meltdown”. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they refer to two different types of behaviour.
Tantrums and meltdowns are both responses to overwhelming emotions, but they differ in how they are expressed and what triggers them. Understanding these differences can help parents and caregivers respond more effectively and support children in developing better emotional regulation skills.
What is a tantrum?
A tantrum is a behaviour generally defined as emotional outbursts that involve screaming, crying, kicking, hitting, and other forms of physical expression. People typically throw tantrums when they are frustrated, want control over a situation, or want something they cannot have.
What is a meltdown?
Meltdowns are also characterized by big emotional outbursts that result in kicking, hitting, vocal expressions, and other forms of physical expression. Unlike tantrums, meltdowns are typically a result of being tired, hungry, needing connection, or having sensory overload.
Meltdowns can often be associated with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); however, all people can have meltdowns. If your child is having a meltdown it does not mean that they may have a neurodevelopmental disorder.
During a meltdown, a child may become completely overwhelmed and may display a range of behaviours that can be challenging for caregivers to manage. These behaviours may include crying, screaming, hitting, biting, throwing objects, or even self-injury.
What are the key differences between tantrums and meltdowns?
While both tantrums and meltdowns are expressions of intense emotion, there are key differences between them. Some of the key differences include:
- Tantrums are often triggered by external events, such as being told “no” or not getting what they want, while meltdowns are usually the result of internal triggers, such as sensory overload, hungry, or being tired.
- Children who are having tantrums are often seeking attention or control over a situation, while children experiencing a meltdown are typically unable to control their behaviour.
- Tantrums are usually shorter in duration, often lasting only a few minutes, while meltdowns can last much longer and may take hours to resolve.
- Tantrums are typically characterized by crying, screaming, and other forms of physical expression, while meltdowns may involve more extreme behaviour such as hitting, biting, or even self-injury.
How to respond to tantrums and meltdowns?
When a child is experiencing a meltdown, it’s important to prioritize their safety and help them regain a sense of calm. This may involve removing them from the situation, providing sensory input such as deep pressure or calming music, simply giving them space and time to calm down independently, or staying with them but doing nothing but being there (this does not work for all people).
During a meltdown, there may be times when you are doing everything in your toolbox to help calm your child, including standing on your head, and it does not help. In times like this, you may need to let your child ride out the meltdown while you make sure they do not hurt themselves or others.
In both cases, it’s important to remember that every child is different and may respond differently to various strategies.
If you need more guidance on how to distinguish a tantrum from a meltdown or would like strategies to reduce the number of temper tantrums or meltdowns, feel free to book a free 15-minute conversation with Brenda from Parenting Foundations.