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Meltdown Vs Tantrum: What Is The Difference?

Team StoryWeavers|December 15, 2020|

meltdown vs tantrum difference

“Whine and pout, scream and shout, kick those nasty troubles out!”

Children kicking and screaming for apparently no reason at home or public places such as supermarkets and trains are a common sight. As a parent, not knowing how to deal with this can prove to be quite stressful. 

The first step towards handling this is to understand what is happening with your child. Understanding the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum is the key to supporting the child through the outburst since they may look similar but are in fact very different. 

In this article, we will cover the differences between meltdowns and tantrums. 

(Click to read the section.)

Meltdowns

A meltdown is a result of sensory overload. It is a result of processing too much sensory information. Sensory information includes noise, light, touch, etc. It confuses and frightens children and eventually, results in a meltdown. A meltdown will subside slowly as the overwhelming stimulus is removed from the child’s environment. 

Here are a few possible triggers for a sensory meltdown as detailed in the book Managing Meltdowns and Tantrums on the Autism Spectrum; A Parent and Caregiver’s Guide.:

  • Unusual sounds such as fireworks or thunder
  • Bright fluorescent light in the grocery store 
  • Texture and flavour of food such as too crunchy or too salty
  • Overpowering scents such as candles or perfume
  • Difficulty being touched such as a tap on the shoulder that suddenly feels like a punch

Tantrums

Throwing a tantrum is a child’s way of expressing frustration. It is often a result of their inability to express their needs or wants. It has a behavioural component to it and is not just a sensory reaction, unlike a meltdown. The book The Tantrum Survival Guide suggests that multiple factors are responsible for a tantrum. 

The book also lists a few common causes of tantrums:

  • Being tired or hungry
  • Events that make children feel big emotions such as
    • Moving
    • A new caregiver
    • A new sibling
    • Accident or injury
  • Language issues such as not being able to express what the child thinks
  • Different parenting styles that reinforce tantrums
    • Giving children whatever they want to stop the tantrum
    • Not acknowledging the emotions that lead to the child’s tantrum. 

Meltdowns Vs Tantrums

Here are a few key differences between a meltdown and a tantrum. 

  • Type of reaction
    • Meltdown: Biological due to sensory overload
    • Tantrum: Behavioural
  • Outcome
    • Meltdown: Wants the stimulus to subside
    • Tantrum: Wants particular demands to be met
  • Timespan
    • Meltdown: Can last longer and recovery time is required
    • Tantrum: Can end abruptly once the demands are met

It is difficult to remain calm when your child is struggling with big emotions. The key here is to remain calm and assess whether it is a tantrum or a meltdown to help them through this. The quickest way to manage a tantrum is to acknowledge the child’s emotions without actually giving in to their demands whereas to manage a meltdown you must take the child to a quiet, safe place and allow them to calm down. 

Have you tried these strategies before? How was your experience of using them? Do let us know in the comments below. 

About the Author


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Mekhala Joshi

“Me-kha-la!” That happens at least once when she introduces herself to new people. She’s the only ‘Mekhala’ she knows, and she takes a bit of pride in that. She is a quintessential introvert. Mekhala loves tea but cannot make a good cup of tea and often ends up having coffee. She claims that she takes all adjectives as complements unless specified otherwise. Mekhala is an organizational psychologist and psychometrician. She was a class teacher of 36 adorable girls for two years, grade 2 & 3, as a part of Teach For India Fellowship. And has worked as an independent consultant for a couple of years.

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