child is upset, sitting cross legged and holding their face in their hands
child is upset, sitting cross legged and holding their face in their hands

Recognise a tantrum from a meltdown before you intervene

The terms tantrums and meltdowns are used interchangeably by many parents. This single view of behaviour can cause parents to mismanage these incidents making the situation worse.

Need to know

The terms tantrums and meltdowns are used interchangeably by many parents. This single view of behaviour can cause parents to mismanage these incidents making the situation worse. 

A good analogy to describe meltdowns is the electrical overload in your home. Most houses have various powerpoints used by electrical devices, but when you try to draw more electricity that a circuit can handle, an electrical overload occurs. When this happens, an electrical safety switch is triggered shutting everything down. 

A child who is having a meltdown is overloaded. This is the bodies’ reactive mechanism to being overwhelmed, it turns on the safety switch and shuts everything down. Meltdowns can be triggered by a myriad things, including sensory input, fatigue, too much change or social pressures. It continues even if it doesn’t get the child any attention and sometimes compromises their safety because they have lost temporary control of their bodies.

A meltdown does not happen with a goal in mind. Your child is not trying to manipulate you to buy them something or to make you do something.

A tantrum, however, is usually goal-oriented and tends to stop when the child gets what they want. Although tantrums can be quite intense, the child usually has some control over their behaviour. It’s important to note that tantrums can turn into meltdowns if the child experiences sensory overload in that period.

Why it’s important

Knowing how to distinguish between meltdowns and tantrums is important so that you can choose the right support strategy to minimise and de-escalate the situation.

Managing a tantrum with reasoning or bargaining might work when you are addressing an end goal, but it’s not going to work with a meltdown. Behavioural methods that help manage tantrums may actually cause further stress and traumatise a child having a meltdown.

A meltdown will typically stop when a child has worn themselves out or if there has been a positive change to their surroundings or a reduction in sensory input. It’s important to note that a meltdown will not always present as intense feelings like lashing out or screaming, sometimes a child will shut down completely or withdraw.

Tips & Strategies

The best way to help your child is to find triggers and patterns by recording the meltdowns in the Keywell app. It is far better to adjust the environment, your expectations and routine to support your child’s wellbeing than it is to manage meltdowns.

Managing tantrums

Acknowledge your child’s feelings by being clear you understand what they want “I see you want to have a turn and it’s frustrating having to wait. When your brother finishes with it you can use it” then redirect their energy in a positive way, “I know how much you love Lego, shall we build something together while we wait?”

Dealing with meltdowns

You can’t stop a meltdown but you can support your child through it to ensure they are safe.

Tip 1 – Learn to recognise some of the signs that your child is nearing a meltdown. If you catch the signs of a meltdown early enough you might be able to prevent it. You can try using distraction, helping your child use calming strategies such as fidget toys or listening to music or removing any potential triggers.

  • being irritable, which can include shouting or physical aggression
  • fidgeting or stimming more (repetitive movements or noises)
  • getting frustrated over small things
  • having difficulty focusing
  • covering eyes or ears from sensory input

Tip 2 – Remove your child from the environment only if safety is a concern, if possible make the immediate area safe and avoid touching them. Consider adjusting lighting, temperature and sound to reduce sensory input. 

Tip 3 – Stay calm at all costs. A soft tone of voice and relaxed body language is important so as not to further escalate the situation. 

Tip 4 – Don’t shame, reason or lecture. Instead reduce verbal communication by using visual representations and simple “yes” and “no”.

Tip 5 – Offer them something that you know gives them comfort or that helps them self-regulate. If you are unsure, this is not a time to try new things because it can cause further distress.

Tip 6 – Allow your child to recover. Be mindful of additional demands and stimuli, and give them a chance to return to a calm state at their own pace.

References

How to tell a tantrum from a meltdown

Meltdowns – a guide for all audiences

How to respond empathetically to a meltdown

All About ‘Autism Meltdowns’: Why They Happen and How to Cope

Managing and Preventing Meltdowns

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