Sunday, July 22, 2012

Meltdowns vs. Tantrums

Meltdowns are not tantrums.

I'll say that again: Meltdowns are not tantrums.

Why should anyone care about the difference? Because although they may look the same to the untrained eye, the cause of and appropriate response to each are vastly different.

In our little world, Son #1 has meltdowns, while Son #2 used to throw tantrums. Notice how I can discuss tantrums in the past tense, while meltdowns remains in the present tense? That is because tantrums are cries for attention, which can be redirected into more positive ways of communicating. Meltdowns are reactions to sensory overloads, which can sometimes be circumvented ahead of time, but are nearly impossible to stop once fully underway.

Let me give an example of a typical tantrum Son #2 used to have. When he was pre-verbal (see Which Came First: The Speech Delay or the Creativity?), Son #2 used to get very angry when I was cooking dinner. The smells of food would drive his stomach into overdrive, and he wanted to eat now. Since I didn't want him filling up before dinner, I would tell him to wait, that dinner would be ready in 20 minutes, ask if he wanted to help, etc. He would simply stand there and scream at me with every bit of energy and power his little body could produce. I finally came up with the rule "No screaming at Mom in the kitchen." I would pick him up, state the rule, and put him in the living room. The first few times, he was surprised. Then he apparently spent sometime parsing the language of the rule, searching for the legal loophole. Of course, being two years old, he found it. Instead of screaming at me in the kitchen, he would calmly walk out, turn around, put his toes right at the edge of the entrance, and begin screaming. Technically, he wasn't in the kitchen, so he was obeying the rule. No "spirit of the law" for a two-year-old.

Now, let's review one of Son #1's meltdowns. The scene: his brother's birthday party, filled with kids of all ages running wild in our yard. The party was scheduled for three hours, but one friend arrived early and many stayed late. We love hanging out with our friends, so we were fine with this; but Son #1 needed a break, and there was nowhere to hide. He seemed to be managing all right, but when a beach ball that we got at a science open house from Berkeley Labs was accidentally burst, he exploded. One of the moms, who is very patient and gentle, was talking to him, but I could see his body language: stiffness, gritted teeth, intensity radiating from every pore. A meltdown was on the way, and it wasn't going to be pretty. I went over to him, held him, and he erupted in a wave of tears and wrath-filled accusations. His body went limp, and it was all I could do to get him to a bench. We sat down and I just held him as he poured out his anger and hurt and frustration. Once he was calm enough to hear me (he cannot process what I say when he's in the middle of a meltdown), we could talk about what had happened and get him functioning enough to go lie down on his bed. He wasn't over the upset, just worn out. At this point, I'm exhausted, he's exhausted, and the other parties are in shock. Son #1's meltdowns are nuclear explosions compared to the car-backfirings of Son #2's tantrums.

I believe that the tantrum habit can be broken. Often, tantrums are a cry for attention. The child might be hungry, tired, scared, overwhelmed, or the child might have learned that throwing a tantrum gets him what he wants. Being firm and loving will go a long way to ending the tantrums.

Meltdowns, on the otherhand, are an existential scream at the "too muchness" of the world. Too much sound, too much touch, too many people, too much of the wrong food, too much everything. Love and compassion are required, but discipline, in the moment, is useless. Maybe the child needs to be held. Maybe he needs to be left alone in a safe environment. Regardless, the child and the parents need love and compassion.

On a related note, Son #1 informed me a couple of weeks ago that, now he's getting older, he can periodically feel hormone surges. Buckle your seatbelts. Check those safety harnesses, folks. The next few years are going to be one wild ride!


  1. Hi Sarah!

    "Then he apparently spent sometime parsing the language of the rule, searching for the legal loophole." I love this and know this well! Thank you for a morning giggle.

    Wonderful difference between an overexcitability and overload on the neural connections versus a mistaken goal of childhood with resultant behavior.


  2. My favorite line is: Love and compassion are required, but discipline, in the moment, is useless.

    I am so grateful for the day I finally realized this -- and was okay with it. It is counter-intuitive and difficult for siblings who don't generally struggle with meltdown emotions to understand ("why do you treat him different than me?!"), but it is a sanity saver for the parenting part of me. When I hold the child who is wreaking havoc because of emotional overload, I am not reinforcing negative behavior but I am helping to realign a positive balance.

    Beautiful post. I hope you have many compassionate onlookers who learn something about raising their own children.

  3. A friend posted this link to her FB, which is how I found it. As someone who's "been there - done that" may I just say how beautifully you described this!?! A very excellent job!

    In my experience, while I knew what I was dealing with, having it happen publically and knowing that all the onlookers had no clue that I wasn't just an over-indulgent parent letting my child behave HORRIBLY ... well, that just adds to the exhaustion and is so hard to deal with!

    Again - great writing! AND great parenting! I applaud you!

  4. I agree wholeheartedly!!! You really pinned down the difference between the two.

  5. A very good distinction. It is important to recognize neural overload versus general disruptive behavior or attention getting tactics. In my classroom teaching, I often encounter outbursts which catch the attention of the entire group. One of those outbursts resulted in the child collapsing in a fetal position in the corner and crying for about five minutes. I realized that the child needed attention but not the attention of the entire group. The only thing I could do at the moment was monitor closely and continue the activity with the group. Surprisingly , the child managed 'a recovery' and rejoined us in a less active mode, more observant and quieter. This seemed to me to be a small victory for the student, both in the realization that he had ability to control and recover from the overwhelming emotional triggers he was feeling.

  6. Thanks for this! This post actually helped me understand my husband's meltdowns better. He has mild high-functioning autism and I have trouble navigating his sensory overloads sometimes. He's adamant that he doesn't have tantrums, and now I see the difference!

  7. Thank you, all, for taking the time to share your comments.

    Becky, isn't it interesting how by understanding what children experience, we can better understand ourselves as adults? Is your husband aware of his triggers? Perhaps he or you could keep a journal to help discover any patterns or commonalities. it could go along way toward helping.

    By the way, after a meltdown-free few months, we're back at it again, with bells on. Based on this and Becky's comment, I'm beginning to believe that the meltdowns will never fully go away, just become better managed with age, self-awareness, and humor.

  8. This was great. My wife linked this blog to me so I could learn the difference between tantrums and meltdowns :). Honestly, this was really helpful.

    1. I'm so glad that you found this helpful, Cliff. When we know what we're dealing with, it makes it much easier to respond appropriately. (Or, at least know what is driving us batty.)

    2. thank you. I sometimes feel I am going mental raising a gifted child. this explains her to a t (or make that an m for meltdown). and she also did the little lawyer of around age 2 standing on 'other furniture' she wasn't told to stand on - similar to the toe outside the kitchen.. absolutely nailed it! thank you!