15 Ways a Meltdown Differs From a Tantrum

Temper tantrum or meltdown--it is an argument autism parents find themselves engaged in all of the time. For a parent with a neurotypical child, it can be hard to see an autistic child throwing what appears to be a temper tantrum and understand the child has little control over the situation. This line of thinking, unfortunately, is why some autistic children tend to get labeled as brats or spoiled children who would benefit from more discipline.

Meltdown and tantrum are two words that are commonly used interchangeably. In some cases but not all, the parent of a neurotypical child may even try throwing out the word “meltdown” to justify a child having a tantrum when, in fact, the child is just throwing a tantrum.

Whether you are an autism parent or not, it is important for you to understand the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. A tantrum is something a child does when he/she is not getting his/her way. A tantrum is a behavior that is only going to get worse if a child is allowed to continue to throw them. A meltdown, on the other hand, is not something a child can control. In fact, a meltdown is a cry for help. When a child has a meltdown, it is because he/she has become overwhelmed and overloaded.

Depending on the age of your child, he/she may need some form of punishment when he/she throws a fit. If, however, your child is having a meltdown, punishment is only going to make it worse. Instead, the child needs your help. Everyone who has children in their lives should understand the key differences between these two terms. In fact, here are 15 ways temper tantrums and meltdowns are different.

15 Reaction Desired

There is some degree of manipulation involved when a child is throwing a tantrum that doesn’t exist when a child is having a meltdown. When your child is throwing a fit, he/she wants to get a reaction out of you. This is why, in some cases, walking away or ignoring your child while he/she is throwing a tantrum is enough to get the tantrum to stop. This solution, however, is not going to work if your child is having a meltdown.

When a child is having a meltdown, the child really could care less that you are upset or annoyed by the meltdown. In fact, the child probably isn’t even paying attention to you. When a child is having a tantrum, on the other hand, that is just what the child wants to happen. The child knows his/her tantrum is working if you are annoyed or upset. By being annoyed or upset, you are giving your child a signal that you may just give in to why he/she threw the tantrum in the first place.

14 Awareness

When a child is having a tantrum, he/she is still completely aware of what is going on around him/her. The child knows whether or not you are watching, the child knows if someone leaves the room, the child knows if the phone rings, and the child knows how loud he/she is being.

This, however, is very different when a child is having a meltdown. A child having a meltdown has absolutely no sense of awareness. Imagine all the times you spun around really fast several times and then stopped. You are dizzy, you can’t see anything clearly, and you feel funny. Imagine being underwater. Everything, including your vision and your hearing, is distorted and you have trouble breathing. This is what it feels like for a child that is having a meltdown.

This, again, is why you can sometimes stop a tantrum, but you have to let a meltdown run its course. While you, of course, want to do what you can to help your child. There may (or may not) be anything you can do to calm your child because he/she may not even realize you are there.

13 Intended Goal

According to Brain Balance Achievement Centers, a tantrum is a behavior that will typically dissipate when the child’s intended goal is achieved. For example, you put your child in his/her room and tell him/her it is time to go to bed. Your child starts to throw a fit because he/she does not want to go to bed. This tantrum will end when your child either falls asleep or you allow him/her to get back up and continue whatever he/she was doing before you declared it was bedtime.

There is not any manipulation or intended goals behind having a meltdown. Brain Balance Achievement Centers also state that a tantrum is a social interaction. A child isn’t having a meltdown because he/she wants something from you. A meltdown is the result of being sensitive to a certain sense. Lights, noises, social situations, and physical contact can all trigger a child to become uncomfortable enough to have a meltdown.

Imagine going to the store with your autistic child. You are standing in a line of people waiting to check out. Slowly, your child becomes overwhelmed by all of the people collecting in the line you are in and the lines around you. Becoming overloaded and overwhelmed by the crowd, your child has a meltdown. The difference between this and the tantrum is simply removing the people is not going to make the meltdown suddenly stop. Meltdowns have to run their course. Tantrums will stop when the goal is met.

12 Punishments and Ultimatums

With a tantrum, a punishment or ultimatum may be all that is required to get the tantrum to cease. If you tell your child he/she is going to be grounded or placed in time out if he/she does not stop throwing a fit and the fit immediately stops, it is a tantrum. The lack of awareness involved in meltdowns makes punishments and ultimatums ineffective. This is why it's in yours and your child’s best interest for you to stay calm while your child is having a meltdown.

While yelling at your child may get his/her attention if he/she is throwing a tantrum, yelling at a child who is having a meltdown may actually make the meltdown worse. If the meltdown was originally caused because your child was being overstimulated the extra noise that results from you raising your voice is only going to make the meltdown more severe.

11 Triggers

According to Understood.org, both meltdowns and tantrums can be caused by frustration or an inability to communicate the child’s wants or needs. Frustration, however, tends to be more intense when it is related to a meltdown.

A child has a tantrum when he/she is not getting his/her way. The word “no” or the phrase “not right now” tends to trigger younger children to have tantrums. Children will also have tantrums when they are frustrated. The frustration usually stems from a place of being unhappy about a current situation. A child will also have a tantrum if he/she is struggling to communicate his/her needs. For example, if your child is thirsty or hungry and you (or your spouse) happens to be talking on the phone or watching television, your child may throw a fit. This can also happen if your child has yet to learn certain words or phrases.

A meltdown, on the other hand, is a response to an information, sensory, or emotional overload. It occurs when a child feels overwhelmed by what is going on around him/her. During a meltdown, a child can become extremely frustrated. The child could be frustrated because there are too many loud noises, the light could be bothering the child, or there could be too many people in the room. It is also possible someone touched the child when he/she wanted to be left alone.

Autism parents, specifically, are encouraged to create routines and schedules for their children. Autistic children are supposed to learn and function better when they have a routine and a schedule. The children know what to expect and how everything happens. Unfortunately, when a chance to the routine occurs, autistic children can have trouble adjusting. This, in turn, can cause the child to have a meltdown. For example, if your spouse were to take a week off of work for vacation time, this sudden change in the other parent being home more could cause the child to have a meltdown.

10 Bargaining

Have you ever seen a toddler try to barter a deal while throwing a fit? If you have, you witnessed a tantrum, not a meltdown. As stated previously, children, for the most part, lose the ability to form coherent thoughts when having a meltdown. A child having a meltdown is not going to be able to stop and negotiate or argue with you while having said meltdown.

According to Mayo Clinic, the negotiating and bartering works both ways. If your child is having a tantrum, you can communicate with your child and negotiate with your child to get him/her to calm down. For example, you can tell your child to calm down and try using his/her words to tell you what is wrong. This same method is not going to do anything if your child is having a meltdown. With the sensory overload that caused the meltdown to occur in the first place, the child having the meltdown usually cannot hear his/her parents talking.

9 Length

According to Autism-Causes.com, a meltdown tends to last longer than a tantrum. This is because a tantrum ends when the child is successful in getting his/her way, gets distracted, loses interest, or is no longer getting any reaction or attention from you. Even if a meltdown originally started because the child wanted something, giving the child what he/she wanted is not going to stop the meltdown the same way it would stop a tantrum.

If your child is throwing a tantrum because he/she wanted a candy bar and you give the child the candy bar, the tantrum is going to stop. If, however, your child is having a meltdown because he/she wanted a candy bar, giving him/her the candy bar is not going to make the meltdown stop. In fact, the child may throw or bite the candy bar and the meltdown could escalate.

Other than attempting techniques you may have in place to help calm your child, the only thing you can do is allow your child’s meltdown to run its course. Doing things to get in the way of the meltdown could just make it worse. When your child is having a tantrum, on the other hand, you may be able to get the tantrum to suddenly stop by some form of distraction or treat. A meltdown is almost like a riding a bike up a hill. You have to let your child get to the top of the hill, explode, and then slowly work his/her way back down the hill.

8 Control

When a child is throwing a tantrum he/she is very much in control of the situation. The children have complete control over how loud he/she is screaming and how much he/she is thrashing. In some ways, a person could almost argue a child throwing a tantrum is a child putting on a show. The child is trying to get a reaction out of his/her parents. The child is trying to accomplish a goal. A tantrum is a controlled situation. The child made a decision to throw a fit.

A meltdown, however, is the complete opposite when it comes to control. A child having a meltdown has absolutely no control over what he/she is doing. During the meltdown, the child may bite, kick, scream, and thrash. When a child is having a meltdown, it is because he/she is overwhelmed. Imagine being in a room where everything is too bright, too loud, and too close to you. Then, the room starts spinning. You can’t see anything, you can’t hear anything, and something keeps poking you in an uncomfortable manner. This feeling is being completely overwhelmed and overloaded is why a child has a meltdown in the first place.

7 Danger

The goal of a tantrum for a child is to get your attention and to get his/her way. A child throwing a tantrum is completely aware of his/her surroundings and isn’t going to do anything that would cause him/her to get hurt. A child throwing a tantrum also isn’t going to want to break things he/she cares about while throwing a tantrum.

If you pay close enough attention, a child who breaks things while throwing a tantrum breaks things that didn’t belong to the child to begin with. For example, a child having a temper tantrum may break a vase and figurine belonging to you or your spouse. The child may also break one of his/her sibling’s toys.

As stated previously, a child having a meltdown is not aware of his/her surroundings. A child having a meltdown also isn’t in control. When a child is unaware and not in control, it makes for a very dangerous situation. The child could bite or scratch him/herself. The child could bite, kick, or scratch another person in the room.

The child could also thrash parts of his/her body into furniture, walls, or sharp corners and get hurt. Ideally, you want to let your child’s meltdown run its course. However, it is necessary to intervene and make sure your child is in a safe place while having the meltdown, especially if your child gets physical during meltdowns.

6 Audience Required

A successful tantrum requires an audience. This is why walking away or ignoring a child throwing a tantrum can sometimes get the child to stop throwing said tantrum. The whole purpose of the tantrum is to try to gain something the child was previously not allowed to have. The goal of a tantrum cannot be accomplished if no one is watching the child throw it. For this reason, a child will typically go out of his/her way to make sure there is an audience.

Meltdowns, on the other hand, do not require an audience. There is no level of manipulation when having a meltdown and the child is not trying to gain anything from you. In fact, children can have meltdowns in a room completely by themselves if something were to set them off (such as a bright light or a loud noise).

One of the biggest ways a parent can tell whether a child is having a meltdown or a tantrum is simple – observe them. Are they stopping to make sure you are looking at them? If your child is having a fit and occasionally your child stops to make sure you are still watching, your child is having a tantrum. If your child does not appear to care whether or not you are in the room, your child is having a meltdown.

This, again, is one of the biggest reasons why you can stop a tantrum, but may not be able to stop a meltdown.

5 Feelings Afterwards

The feeling a child feels after a tantrum and after a meltdown is very different. It is a common misconception that autistic children specifically have very little, if any, empathy. The truth is that autistic children just struggle to express their feelings. They have feelings, they just don’t know how to get them out. It just takes a little longer for them to learn how to express themselves.

After a tantrum, a child is going to be happy or satisfied if you, the parent, give in and give the child what he/she was throwing a fit for in the first place. If you, the parent, did not give in to the child after a tantrum ends, the child may feel angry or upset that he/she did not get his or her way.

After a meltdown, it is normal for a child to feel some level of exhaustion. Children having meltdowns do not realize how much of their energy they are putting into the meltdown. When they finally snap out of it, there is a lot of heavy breathing, panting, and maybe even a little yawning. It is also not uncommon for a child to feel bad for having a meltdown afterward.

This is especially true if the child hurts someone or damaged something during the meltdown. You are not likely to get this same feeling of remorse from a child who has just had a tantrum.

4 Stopping vs Preventing

While any parent is going to argue they would like to prevent temper tantrums, the end goal is different with a temper tantrum and a meltdown. With a temper tantrum, your goal is to get the tantrum to stop. For every parent, this method of stopping the tantrum is going to be different. Maybe you give the child what he/she wants? Maybe you ground the child? Maybe you send the child to his/her room?

The mindset of a parent with a child who has meltdowns, however, is very different. Instead of focusing on trying to stop a meltdown you focus on preventing one from happening in the first place. A parent with a child – such as an autistic child – who is prone to meltdowns will learn what sets his/her child off and find ways to adjust to avoid these triggers.

For example, if your child has meltdowns because he/she is sensitive to sound, a pair of noise-canceling headphones could prevent meltdowns caused from loud sound from occurring.

A parent’s method of preventing a tantrum from happening is going to be very different from a parent trying to prevent a meltdown as well. This is because a tantrum is considered a bad behavior but a meltdown is not. A parent is going to have to teach his/her child that throwing a fit when the child does not get his/her way is not the right way to solve a problem.

When it comes to a meltdown, a parent has to focus on finding ways to prevent a child from becoming overloaded because a meltdown isn’t something a child has control over. In fact, a meltdown isn’t really a behavior at all. It is a natural reaction.

3 Communication

According to Parents, at a certain age, a tantrum is a child’s attempt to communicate a need. As the child gets older, a tantrum goes from being a way to communicate a need to being a way to communicate a want. The key thing to understand is that a tantrum is used as a form of communication. More importantly, a child can still speak while throwing a tantrum.

When it comes to communication, things are very different when your child is having a meltdown. During a meltdown, it is not uncommon for a child to lose all ability to speak. A child having a meltdown may scream, cry, or even babble some words and sounds incoherently. However, children having meltdowns are unable to have a conversation that makes any sense while doing so.

In some cases, it is even possible a child is having a meltdown because he/she is nonverbal and is struggling to communicate a want or need. In this case, the trigger would be an inability to communicate and frustration are what triggered the meltdown. Either way, communication or lack of communication plays a huge role in both meltdowns and tantrums.

2 Bribery

As stated previously, a child is completely aware of his/her surroundings during a tantrum. This is why your child is able to attempt to work out a deal with you to get the tantrum to stop. While bribery may or may not be the best way to end a tantrum, it is an option.

It is, however, an option that is only going to work if your child is, indeed, having a tantrum. A child having a meltdown cannot be bribed to stop what he/she is doing because he/she is not going to acknowledge you or what you are trying to bribe him/her with.

Basically, if you can offer your child his/her favorite food, favorite toy, favorite blanket, or other favorite item and the fit stops, it was a tantrum, not a meltdown.

1 Resolution

Tantrums and meltdowns end very differently. When a tantrum ends, for example, there is usually a clear winner. Either the child was able to throw a successful tantrum and get his/her way or the child did not get his/her way. Either way, a tantrum ends when either the parent or the child wins what could be perceived as a bit of a fight.

Following a tantrum, the child is either going to be very happy he/she got his/her way or very angry and upset because you – the parent – got your way instead.

Meltdowns do not have winners and they do not have rights and wrongs. After a meltdown is over, it is normal for your child to feel exhausted because a meltdown can zap a child of his/her energy completely. The child may even feel relief because the meltdown and the stimulation are finally over.

The mindset of a parent regarding resolution is very different when it comes to meltdowns and when it comes to tantrums. The parent of a child having a tantrum is going to be thinking about how to punish the child or how to teach the child not to have any additional tantrums. A tantrum can even make a parent angry.

A meltdown, on the other hand, may make a parent upset or stressed out. The main goal of a parent in this situation is to keep the child safe and find ways to calm the child down. The parent may even have therapeutic items such as a weighted blanket or sensory balls to help calm the child down.

Until you've experienced a meltdown, you may never fully understand nor appreciate the differences between a meltdown and a tantrum. However, it is important to recognize a tantrum is a bad behavior of which a child should be broken, and a meltdown is a reaction to overstimulation a child is stuck with for the rest of his/her life.

Sources: Brain Balance Achievement Centers, Mayo Clinic, Autism-Causes.com, Parents

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