Is there a difference? Well, actually, yes! It is very important for parents and teachers to understand the differences between tantrums and meltdowns. Although they can consist of similar behaviors like yelling, crying, hitting, spitting, or biting, it is important to distinguish between the two. Why? Because it will guide how we intervene to help the child!
Let’s first look at what a tantrum consists of:
- The child typically has some level of control over the behavior.
- The child has the ability to stop the behaviors quickly.
- The child is seeking attention from others around them (you know the old “I’m going to cry and scream and peek out from under my hands to see if you’re watching me…oh, you are? Ok, I’ll scream louder” maneuver!)
All behavior can typically fall under two categories of wanting something or avoiding something. Although tantrums can lead to being overwhelmed, they usually start off with this child being in control of the behavior. If it’s a tantrum, the child will often calm down once he gets want he wants or needs.
Now let’s take a look at meltdowns:
- The child doesn’t appear to have control over their behavior.
- The child doesn’t have the capacity in the moment to reason or think logically.
- They often struggle to follow basic prompts.
- Appear to be reacting out of fear (this is where you may see the fight or flight response kick in).
- You may find that you are really at a loss as to identifying what the trigger was that set your child off.
- The child will take a while to calm down (rather than calming immediately when they get what they want.)
- Often expresses remorse for actions afterwards.
If you feel that your child is having a tantrum, first try to identify what it is that they are trying to gain from the tantrum: Did you ask them to clean up toys and they don’t want to stop playing? Are they trying to avoid helping put dishes away? If you can catch it quickly enough you can either redirect the child or coach them into making a positive choice to get their needs met. You can use a little humor or offer 2 acceptable options as well. Sometimes the best response to a tantrum is to flat out ignore it! Yup! Turn your back and walk away if possible (while still providing a level of supervision). You may find the tantrum stops much more quickly this way. As hard as it may seem in the moment you really need to avoid giving in to the tantrum. Once the tantrum is over, be sure to follow through with what the initial request was. For example, if your child threw a tantrum over needing to clean up his toys, the tantrum was meant to escape doing this task. Have your child follow through with completion of the request and pick those toys up! (And, yes, you may experience another tantrum but eventually kiddo will get the point!)
When the child is experiencing a meltdown, typical behavioral techniques are not going to work well for you. Remember, we said your child is too overwhelmed to think, respond to prompts, or reason with. If possible, remove the child from the situation and the demands, remove stimulation (other people watching, music playing, lights, etc.) in order to allow your child’s brain to reorganize itself. Try to help your child feel safe and provide reassurance that you are there with them to help them regain control of their body and emotions. You can use a grounding method if your child will allow you to help. Have your child identify 4 things they can see, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can touch and 1 thing they can smell. If they won’t do it on prompting and are still too upset, you can model it for them (all the while possibly helping you with your sanity as well!)
These are just some basic guidelines in helping you to identify the difference- in either case, sometimes in the moment the best thing you can do is buckle up and ride it out. Getting your child to calm themselves in the moment is going to be very difficult. Use times when your child is happy, relaxed. and receptive to teaching coping skills. Talk with your child, or act out through play, better ways in which your child can handle such big emotions. You will see much more success in the long run by taking a preventive approach rather than a reactive one!
Katerie Breuer, MSW, LCSW, LISW-CP
BONUS: You can get your FREE copy of chapter 23 from our newest book called “The Building Blocks of Positive Parenting” This chapter is all about tantrums and contains 21 interventions specific to tantrums. Grab yours now!