Understanding Tantrums and Meltdowns: A Guide for Parents

Categories: Behaviour

Anyone who has spent any time at all with a child has probably experienced a tantrum.

But what happens when an emotional outburst is something more? This is what we often call a meltdown and it is actually quite different from a tantrum.

What is a tantrum?

Tantrums are an age appropriate reaction in kids when they can’t control their big emotions. Tantrums can involve slamming of doors, yelling, screaming, crying, stomping of feet.

Particularly common in children under the age of 5 years, tantrums occur because the child has not yet developed the skills to inhibit their behaviours. They are often brought about by the children not getting what they want.

Tantrums usually end when the child finally accepts they can’t get what they want or the parent gives in. In this way, tantrums can become learned behaviours if they are reinforced by a favourable outcome for the child.

What is a meltdown?

A meltdown can look the same as a tantrum, and may well start off as one. However, a major difference is that a child does not have any control over a meltdown. When in meltdown, your child cannot stop the behaviour.

“A meltdown is a sign that the brain in not coping”, explains Allison Davies, Neurologic Music Therapist and Brain Care Specialist.

When the brain is overwhelmed it usually leads to a heightened level of anxiety which then leads to overload. The child’s fight, flight or freeze reflexes kick in which is why meltdowns often lead to behaviours such as lashing out, hitting and kicking or even running away.

Common triggers for meltdowns include sensory overload and poor emotional regulation.

My 9 year old is prone to meltdowns after a big day of school. He has ADHD and sensory processing disorder. To see him at school you wouldn’t know this as he works so hard “keeping it together” all day. Unfortunately, that means by the evening he is exhausted and overwhelmed. It often is something insignificant that triggers a meltdown – an argument with a sibling, a request by me or even the general noise of a busy household.

Unlike a tantrum, reasoning or even threatening consequences does not help stop a meltdown. As a parent, it can be difficult to watch your child having a meltdown as you feel like you have not control over the situation.

The best course of action is to keep your child safe, move them somewhere quiet if possible and be a calm, reassuring presence. Any loud or abrupt behaviour from you is likely to exacerbate the meltdown.

It is also good to have some self-soothing “tools” up your sleeve. For us, belly breathing and deep pressure (a hug or blanket wrapped tightly around the body) are the most effective and are easy to employ anywhere.

Knowing what triggers your child’s meltdowns is the best way to avert them. If I know my son is particularly tired or overwhelmed afterschool or if I see him escalating, I ensure he has quiet time to relax. I also encourage him to engage in some of the sensory exercises that have proven to work for him.

It’s important to realise that any child can experience a meltdown, just the same way any adult can feel overwhelmed when there is too much happening for them emotionally, mentally and in their environment.

The Understood website has some great tips on taming tantrums and managing meltdowns in kids. They also discuss what you can do before and after a meltdown.

You can also learn more information on sensory overload and overwhelm over at ParentTV.