Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Screaming, crying, kicking, even rolling on the floor…These are all behaviors observed during a tantrum or meltdown. As any parent is aware, tantrums are a common occurrence for young children. Kids with Autism, however, often deal with meltdowns as well. To many people, a tantrum and meltdown appear to be the same thing. In fact, the words are often used interchangeably, but for children with Autism and other sensory issues, a tantrum is very different from a meltdown. It is important to know the differences between the two because it will change the way you need to respond and support your child.

What is a tantrum

A tantrum is goal oriented. Typically, tantrums begin when a child becomes frustrated and struggles to communicate their needs or wants. There are countless reasons that kids throw tantrums, but some of the most common include fatigue, hunger, attention seeking, and disappointment.

Tantrums need an audience because the child is actually throwing the tantrum to get what they want. This is why you’ll often see a child pause their behavior mid-tantrum and look around to ensure someone is watching before resuming the tantrum again. For example, a child is told he can’t get a toy at the store, so he launches a tantrum in an attempt to convince his parents to change their minds.

How to deal with a tantrum?

The best thing to do is ignore it. You many even go into another room until the tantrum subsides, if you are in a safe place. If it is not possible to remove yourself from the situation, you should ignore the behavior. It is important not to give in to tantrums, as kids remember the positive or negative outcomes and giving in to their demands will encourage them to launch into a tantrum in the future.

What is a meltdown?

Meltdowns are a reaction to sensory overload. When a child with Autism is exposed to excessive sensory input, such as sounds, smells, or even emotions, they can become overwhelmed and this is when a meltdown occurs. Meltdowns are not goal oriented and don’t require an audience, as a matter of fact, meltdowns can happen when the child is entirely alone. Additionally, meltdowns are out of the child’s control and once a meltdown has started, it cannot be stopped until the meltdown energy has dissipated.

How to handle a meltdown.

The number one most important thing to do when your child is experiencing a meltdown is to ensure their safety. This can be particularly challenging in public or crowded places, as many kids with Autism feel the need to flee the sensory stimulation that has led to a meltdown. Plan out a strategy ahead of time to keep you and your child safe during a meltdown.

Meltdowns can be extremely stressful, but they typically have a pattern of escalation. It is important that you stay calm so you don’t amplify the situation. A calming routine can be very helpful for both adults and children, particularly when people need help relaxing after the meltdown energy has been spent. Some people find music, counting, deep breathing or visuals help to aid the calming routine, experiment with different resources to find what works best.

Knowing the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum is critical to helping your child through them. Recognizing the types of situations that your child struggles with can also be useful in preventing episodes before they start.

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