Tantrums vs Meltdowns - What’s The Difference?

Today we’re going to discuss the difference between tantrums and meltdowns.

Most parents have no doubt experienced both, but if you can distinguish between when your child is having a meltdown vs a tantrum, then how you handle it will make all the difference.

And if you have a child with Autism, children with ADHD, or other behavioural or learning challenges, then how you handle a meltdown in particular or learn the signs of when one is approaching before it hits can make all the difference (for your child and you).

Why do tantrums happen & what do they mean?

Let’s look at the meaning of tantrums aka temper tantrums and how they work, as understanding can make all the difference.

You’ll generally find tantrums have a purpose – a child or young person, or even adults (yes, adults can be known for having tantrums too) want something, or they want to get their own way. And when they get what they want, the behaviour, aka tantrums, will stop.

But if your child or person doesn’t get what they want, then this is where situations escalate to the point where they lash out. And that is not fun if you’ve been on the receiving end of it, is it?

Tantrums can be much more common in kids and young people who don’t know how to regulate their emotions. And by regulate their emotions or feelings, I mean they can’t calm themselves down, mainly when they are in a heightened state.

What is a meltdown?

Meltdowns are generally the result of sensory overload, which is why they’re prevalent in children and adults on the spectrum. The child or person becomes feeling overwhelmed by the situation at hand. It’s not a case of naughty behaviour. This is a very important fact to remember and to educate others on as it’s a common misconception.

Others who don’t understand meltdowns often put kids’ or young people’s behaviour into the naughty category. The person doing so might not know any better and perhaps hasn’t been around people and kids on the spectrum and how to manage ADHD and the like, so let’s educate them to become more understanding and aware wherever possible.

Managing Autism Meltdowns

Meltdowns are a part of life for Autistic families, and it can be very upsetting and frustrating for parents when they don’t know how to help and support their child through one, so we’re going to run through some tips below that you might find helpful.

You might even be exposed to autistic meltdowns in adults or have a child that doesn’t have the Autistic superpower, and still find these fabulous tips useful:

  1. Give them space – your child or young person is already overwhelmed, so don’t crowd them. Many schools have gotten on board with this fabulous aspect and created sensory rooms where young people can go to self-regulate and have some quiet time in a safe space.
  2. Speak to them slowly and get down to their level so you’re not standing over them. You don’t want to seem intimidating.
  3. Allow them time to gather their thoughts and give them the chance to self-regulate and calm themselves down.

You’ll also get to know the signs that a meltdown is coming. For some, it can be:

  • Pacing
  • Rocking
  • Becoming very still
  • A change in routine

If you notice these types of behaviour, have some strategies in your back pocket to try and avoid a meltdown.

Strategies could be in the form of:

  • Distraction
  • Diversion
  • Calming techniques – fidget toys can do wonders

And remember to stay calm yourself. If you become stressed and heightened, our young people can sense this, feed off it, and follow your lead.

One of my son's special interests has always been numbers so when he was little and I could see him getting overwhelmed and heading towards a meltdown, I would ask him maths equations and if I managed to time it right we could often 'reset' his brain before it escalated. Obviously this didn't always work but when it did, it was great!

ADHD Meltdowns aka Emotional Dysregulation

You may have heard about ADHD meltdowns, more commonly referred to as emotional dysregulation. As with Autism, people with ADHD can also experience meltdowns. And again, it isn’t down to being “naughty.”

People with ADHD tend to experience and feel emotions more strongly and intensely than others.

Emotions build up with young people and adults with ADHD, and those emotions come out in varying forms:

  • Crying
  • Lashing out in anger
  • Yelling
  • Physically moving, can’t stay still
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Does any of that sound familiar?

People with ADHD struggle to self-regulate, which means their reaction may be over the top as the cerebral cortex that helps with the emotional response is weaker in ADHD brains.

How to Avoid Tantrums and Meltdowns?

A united front is vital when it comes to tantrums, particularly toddler tantrums. I won’t say tantrums are entirely avoidable. But setting boundaries around what’s acceptable from an early age is an excellent practice to get into.

Draw a line in the sand, and don’t move. If they ask you a million and one times for something, hold your ground. I know how much you probably want to for some peace, but after you’ve done it once, that’s it. They’ll keep hounding you until they get their way.

Then with meltdowns, become aware of the signs that there’s one coming, as prevention can be better than cure when dealing with an Autistic person and ADHD meltdowns.

If you need some more assistance dealing with tantrums and meltdowns, we have many great resources at our Altona North store or online if you can’t visit us in person.



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