What’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

They can look the same, but their causes are wildly different—as are the best ways to handle them. Here's how to tell what's what.

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It’s supposed to be the Happiest Place on Earth, but at Disney California Adventure Park, during the World of Color light show, my son Bennett, then six, lost it. It started with an escalating refrain, “I want to go back to the hotel!” and quickly descended into a red-faced, snot-nosed scream-fest that lasted all the way along Downtown Drive as I half-dragged, half-fireman-carried him back to the hotel.

In hindsight I should have seen it coming. Bennett was tired and recovering from a tummy bug, and the Disneyland crowds and noises had left him over-stimulated and disregulated. Plus, Bennett has autism, so it can be hard for him to process big emotions in an overwhelming situation.

Meltdowns are never pretty—especially when you have an audience—and neither are their ugly cousins, temper tantrums. It’s tempting to conflate these outbursts, and we often use the terms interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two, say experts.

Both are a childhood right of passage as kids test boundaries and learn how to regulate their emotions. It can also be hard to tell them apart in the moment, but here’s a primer, along with some tips for handling each.

Tantrums

Tantrums typically begin in toddlerhood are usually caused when a child wants something they can’t have or tries to do something dangerous (such as climb too high at the playground), and is told, “No.”

“The temper tantrum is a tactic to try and see if that will work to get what he or she wants,” says Amori Mikami, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Mikami says it’s a developmentally appropriate strategy to test limits.

Burlington, Ont. mom Margaret Bourne is all too familiar with her 27-month-old son’s tantrums, which are sparked by everything from not being allowed to run into the street, to being denied candy at the grocery store. The tantrums start with screeches and end with him on the floor crying, squirming and striking out with fists and feet. Bourne tries to ward them off by distracting him; for example, giving him tasks at the supermarket. If that doesn’t work she lets the tantrum run its course without giving in.

It’s the right thing to do, says Mikami. She advises parents to tell the child once, firmly but calmly, “No, you can’t have (or do) that because…” After that, ignore it. “Most children will get tired and give up,” she says. Worst case, in a public space, you may have to cut and run.

If parents are consistent, kids will learn tantrums don’t work and they’ll stop throwing them, says Gail Bell, co-founder of Parenting Power, a Calgary-based parenting resource. Otherwise, you risk raising a child who still uses tantrums to manipulate as a tween or teen (be warned: these involve less floor-time, and more yelling, foot stamping, door slamming or even wall punching).

Meltdowns

A little girl sitting on the floor surrounded by spilled cereal which she is eating An age-by-age guide to disciplining your kid A meltdown looks a lot like a tantrum on the outside, but internally it’s not a choice. It’s the result of a child becoming so emotionally overwhelmed she simply can’t hold it together. She could be over-stimulated, exhausted, angry, or even excited—and it can seem to come from nowhere. One minute Disneyland is awesome, the next minute, like Chernobyl, disaster.

“The child has pretty much lost all control at this point and doesn’t even know what they want—or don’t want—anymore. And he or she isn’t doing this behaviour in any strategic sort of way,” says Mikami.

Parents can feel helpless in the face of a meltdown because nothing they say or do seems to help. In fact, that should be the first clue it’s escalated beyond tantrum—if ignoring it doesn’t diffuse the behaviour, and even giving in (as a hail Mary) doesn’t work, it’s probably a meltdown.

“Every child is different with what they respond to during a meltdown,” says Mikami. Some parents have success labeling the emotion (which puts it into words) and then giving the child a hug (which can be soothing), while others find that leading the child to a quiet spot to decompress is the best strategy. A dedicated “chill-out” space stocked with fidget toys such as a stress ball can also help some kids regulate their emotions. “If your mind is spinning in 100 directions, it can help it calm down, because you’re focusing on the tactile sensation of squeezing,” says Mikami.

As kids get older parents can teach them more explicit techniques for self-regulation such as deep breathing or repeating a mantra—“I’m angry right now but this will pass”—when they start feeling overwhelmed. It’s also important for parents to talk about their own meltdowns (as adults, we still occasionally lose it), to convey to children that managing big emotions is a lifelong skill.

Are some kids more prone to outbursts?

We’re all born with different capabilities for emotion regulation and we have to learn what works for us, says Mikami. However, Bell cautions parents not to give their child’s outbursts a pass by chalking them up to him being more emotional or sensitive than his peers—he still needs to learn that tantrums are not okay, and how to calm down when he feels out of control.

Parents can help kids by naming emotions from an early age, so they develop a vocabulary to describe how they feel. Be careful not to push emotions aside. The impulse is to say, “Don’t worry,” or, “Don’t be scared,” when in fact those negative feelings are part of being human and we have to learn how to manage them.

“When you label a child’s emotion and show pure empathy, ‘Wow, you are so angry right now,’ you’re not trying to fix it or stop it, you’re just acknowledging it,” says Bell. “We all have emotions. It’s what you do with them.”

So, feeling mad is fine. Hitting and kicking are not okay.

A note about kids with special needs

Kids with conditions such as autism, sensory integration disorder, developmental trauma, fetal alcohol syndrome or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can be more prone to tantrums and meltdowns. But that doesn’t mean you need to respond any differently.

“You do the same things, but for parents of special needs children, but you probably have to understand, there’s a reason why your child is going to do this more often,” says Mikami. “Part of the disorder means that your child is functioning at a younger level of maturity. So try to be understanding, even when it seems like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening again.’”

If we ever return to Disneyland, I’ll be sure to prep Bennett in advance for what we’re going to see and do—it’s a strategy that helps lower his stress around new and potentially overwhelming activities. And for insurance, we’ll probably skip the World of Color light show and head straight back to the hotel. Having realistic expectations around what your kid can cope with and tuning into the early warning signs that a meltdown could be on the way, go a long way towards keeping everybody on an even keel.

Read more:
5 tantrum triggers and how you can avoid them
Your kid’s joy is not your job

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