For Families

When is it a meltdown vs. tantrum and how to manage these (in public too)

February 12, 2020

Meltdown VS. Tantrum

The terms meltdown and tantrum are usually used interchangeably. There are similarities in terms of symptom behavior to both. Even so, they should not be used incorrectly or inappropriately, because of their distinct differences. These differences are quite simple.


What Is A Meltdown?

A meltdown is a response to overwhelmed feelings or sensory overload. This may happen when your child is receiving too much sensory input. This could be through a certain sound, sight, taste, smell or an overwhelming demand placed on a child.

For example, when you bring your child in a crowded mall. The sound of the crowd and the sight of too many people could be overwhelming for him or her. Having to process all these is sensory overload. Once this happens, their ‘fight or flight’ instinct is displayed. This could be expressed through lashing out, yelling, running or completely shutting down. During a meltdown a child is not in control of their actions and they need your support and love.

Managing Meltdowns

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 how much information is coming in.

Meltdowns tend to end in one of two ways. One is fatigue – children wear themselves out. The other is 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.

Ways to Manage a Meltdown

Meltdowns are a full-body reaction to being overwhelmed. They are more extreme than tantrums, and kids are not in control of these reactions.

Managing meltdowns is more complicated than taming tantrums. Knowing the triggers can help you avoid a total explosion or your child becoming completely exhausted. If you can’t stop a meltdown, there are ways you can respond to help your child regain control.

Before the Meltdown

1. Get to know your child’s reactions to too much or too little stimuli.

They are not the same for every child and your child may not be reacting to something obvious (for you). For some children it might be emotional or sensory overload. For others, it might be unexpected changes, or pain and fear. Knowing your child’s trigger points can make it easier to avoid meltdowns.

You may notice that your child gets anxious before school or seems overwhelmed at the end of the day. Or maybe meltdowns happen close to mealtimes or bedtime. In that case, hunger or fatigue may be trigger points. Or you may notice that there are certain places where these meltdowns happen, like noisy or crowded places.

2. Notice when it’s escalating.

If you catch the signs early enough, you might be able to help your child calm down before a full-blown meltdown occurs. Common warning signs are:

  • Trouble thinking clearly, making decisions, or responding to questions
  • Repeating thoughts or questions over and over
  • Refusing to follow directions or cooperate
  • Trying to shut out noises, sights, and other sensory things, or trying to run away or hide
  • Moving restlessly, like fidgeting or pacing
  • Complaining of physical issues like dizziness or heart pounding
3. Try to distract him or her from the trigger points.

For some children, the escalation phase can be interrupted. It might help to distract your child with a different task or activity that they find motivating.

4. Be patient.

Your instinct may be to try to stop an escalation quickly. But talking quickly and loudly often makes it worse. Give your child more space and more time to process what you are saying. Use short, concrete sentences that take away your child’s need to make decisions.

During the Meltdown

1. Do a safety assessment.

When your child is screaming and throwing things, it may feel like an emergency. But that doesn’t mean it is. The question to consider: Is anyone hurt or going to get hurt?

2. Be reassuring.

It takes trial and error to know if your child wants physical distance or a firm hug or touch. But keeping your voice and body language calm is helpful in either case. Make sure your child knows you are there and that you understand that this may feel scary and they might feel out of control.

3. Give some space.

If you’re out in public, try to help your child move to a quieter place. If you’re at home, see if you can get your child to go to a spot that is calm. If it is not possible to move your child, ask other people to give you both some space.

4. Tone it down.

Turn down lights, keep things quiet, and try not to crowd your child. If you are at home and your child is not able or willing to move, try moving to the side. (Standing in the doorway can make children feel blocked in).

5. Consider your post-meltdown plan.

Start thinking about how to reengage with your child when the meltdown seems to be over, rather than do something that starts it up again. You may need to abandon your shopping trip. If the meltdown was being escalated by an emotional conversation, you may need to back away from that topic. You can find a new way to approach it the next time you talk about it.

After the Meltdown

1. Take time to recover.

When calming down, your child might feel embarrassed or guilty. You will probably see physical exhaustion, too. Give your child some time to get collected.

2. Find the right time to talk.

You can help your child make sense of what happened. Right after a meltdown may not be the best time, though. When you are both calm, here are some ways to approach it:

Give your child a heads-up. Give advance notice that you are going to talk and be reassuring that your child is not in trouble.

Be brief. Talking about a meltdown can make children feel bad and defensive. Say what you need to say, but try to avoid saying the same thing over and over.

Make sure your child understands. Ask your child to tell you what you talked about and answer any questions. If you have decided on an action plan, see if your child can repeat it to you.


What Is A Tantrum?

A tantrum is a response and an outburst in situations where children don’t usually get what they want or if they are forced to something they do not want to participate in. When your child is having a tantrum, they could be actively seeking your attention. They could even suddenly stop to check if you’re looking or if you’re giving them enough attention. This is a clear sign that they are still in control of their actions. Children would only stop when they get what they want or when they realize that acting up wouldn’t get them anywhere.

Managing Tantrums

To tame tantrums, acknowledge what your child wants without giving in. Make it clear that you understand what your child is after. “I see that you want my attention. When your sister is done talking, it will be your turn.” Then help your child see that there is a more appropriate behavior that will work. “When you’re done yelling, tell me calmly that you are ready for my time.” Children can often stop having a tantrum once they get what they want, or when they are rewarded for using a more appropriate behavior.

Ways to Tame a Tantrum

It’s not unusual for young children to have tantrums when they are upset, angry, or frustrated, or when something doesn’t go their way. Tantrums are common, but being on the receiving end when children lash out can be frustrating and hard to handle.

The good news is that tantrums are usually something children have at least some control over. Many children can change how they are behaving based on how people around them are reacting. There are also ways to keep tantrums from happening in the first place.

Try these tips to stop tantrums in their tracks.

1. Agree on a frustration signal.

Talk with your child about what “getting frustrated” looks like from your point of view. Ask if there is anything your child wants you to look for, too. Then come up with a signal to use when your child is getting frustrated, like squeezing your hand gently. Talk about what you will both do to calm the situation when you use the signal.

2. Assign a calm space.

Find a place in your home that can be a designated calm space. It doesn’t have to be fancy. For example, it could simply be a chair your child likes to sit in. Explain this is a space for calming down, not a punishment space. Your child can go there to take a break when you use the frustration signal. A “chill room” or “chill space” can also be utilized where you place a few sensory items (“fiddle toys”) that your child can use when he or she is starting to feel frustrated.

(At first, you may need to remind your child there’s a place to go to calm down and regroup).

3. Think about what’s causing the tantrum.

Using a signal or going to a calm space might not always do the trick. If you can’t head off a tantrum, try to figure out what is causing it. Knowing the source makes it easier to defuse in the moment. It also helps you both find better ways to avoid the situation next time.

4. Set clear expectations.

Be clear about how you expect your child to behave. Use “when-then” sentences like, “When you speak to me in a calmer voice, then we can talk this through.” This gives your child a choice about whether to follow through or not. (Download a when-then printable chart to fill in and use with your child.)

5. Acknowledge your child’s feelings.

Your child might be acting out, but that doesn’t mean your child’s feelings aren’t real. Try to be empathetic and help your child put names to those feelings. For example: “I know you’re angry with me because I asked you to turn off the video game. I get mad, too, when I have to stop doing something fun.”

6. Ignore it.

Sometimes the best reaction is no reaction. Maybe your child’s tantrum is fueled by the attention you give when you try to tame it. In those cases, it can be better to give some space and not respond at all. Always remember to provide a safe space for your child when you are walking away. We would suggest letting your child know that you are around the corner if they feel ready to talk calmly to you.

7. Praise the behavior you want to see.

When your child gains control and calms down, let your child know it with praise. Give specifics about what your child did well. For example, “I know you were really angry and it was hard for you to stop yelling. You did a nice job taking some time to cool down. Now we can talk about this calmly.”

Meltdown and Tantrum Are Both…

The similarities of a meltdown and a tantrum can easily be seen in the illustration below.

Managing meltdowns and taming tantrums take practice. Learning to recognize the signs and teaching your child coping skills can help you both find better ways to respond in the future.

We are always willing to help with specific examples that you might need support with. Send us an email today and schedule a call with one of our directors: