Meltdowns or Tantrums: How to Tell the Difference

Meltdown? Tantrum? This decision can be tricky, but it’s really important to differentiate between the two because your approach to handling the behavior will greatly differ. After many years of experiencing both and trying to discern what is happening, I wanted to share with you some tips about how to tell the difference and what to do for each. big_cartoon_carvin_scream

For those unfamiliar, a meltdown is considered “an involuntary reaction to over-stimulation, whether cognitive or sensory,” while tantrums are “voluntary reactions in order to manipulate someone.”

To help determine if your child is in fact having a meltdown, look for a few of these key signs:

  • Is your child watching you to see your reaction?
  • Are they aware of their surroundings?
  • Are they concerned with their own safety?
  • When the episode ends, do they calm down quickly?

A child having a meltdown will typically not be aware or concerned with their surroundings, safety, or even your reaction to them. It’s just the opposite with a tantrum: the child is often trying to manipulate either you, his surroundings, or both in order to get what he wants. With meltdowns, even after the episode is over, it may take a while for him or her to calm down. Whereas, following a tantrum, the child will quickly move on to something else.

Once you have determined whether your child is having a meltdown or a tantrum, your response will likely be very different for each. For meltdowns, here a few ideas:

  • Remove your child from an area where they could harm himself or others
  • What comforts your child typically? Try to use that during the meltdown
  • Be calm and reassuring
  • Have a plan in place if the meltdown occurs in a public area
  • Noisy, crowded spaces are often the setting for meltdowns due to sensory overload. Keep your trips short and reward your child for good behavior throughout the visit

Because temper tantrums are really power struggles between you and your child, be sure you have a behavior plan that addresses what you should do if this behavior occurs. Consistency is the key. Some other tips that might help are:

  • Understand why the behavior is occurring
  • Role-play/practice appropriate responses to difficult situations
  • Use language that focuses on what you want your child to do, not what you want them NOT to do
  • Calm first, teach second

As a parent, I find truth in this quote from Fred Rogers: “I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.” After all, it’s never too early to start building appropriate positive behaviors in your child!

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