Every parent knows about tantrums. But can you tell a tantrum from a meltdown? They can look the same to a stranger, but they need to be dealt with in very different ways.
- A child throws a tantrum because they want candy and you said no.
- A child has a meltdown because they were hoping to self-soothe with candy and you said no. They feel like their final attempt at coping with the situation has been removed.
I don’t recommend giving the child candy in either case, but how I respond is different.
- I can reason with the child who is throwing a tantrum. I can remind them of our family rules about candy. I can also remind them of consequences for inappropriate behavior. They may not be particularly charming during this exchange, but we can have a conversation. I know they are listening, and they know I am listening.
- The child who is having a meltdown is beyond reasoning. Maybe they are exhausted. Maybe they got overstimulated. Maybe they are hungry. This child may need a hug and empathy for wanting something they cannot have. This child may need space to calm down. Their life feels out of control. Trying to reason with them might be ignored, or it might make things worse.
My strategies for preventing meltdowns and tantrums are also different.
- I prevent tantrums by setting clear expectations and being consistent. I can remind my kids of these expectations and help them get back on track. My kids know that they can disagree with me, but it needs to be through thoughtful discussion, not yelling or screaming.
- I prevent meltdowns by being aware of my children’s needs, and letting them know ahead of time what is going to happen. When we have to do something that I know is difficult for them, we work together to come up with coping mechanisms. I also work with my kids on noticing that they are starting to feel overwhelmed before they actually reach the point of being overwhelmed. We wait until they have calmed down to discuss the details of the incident, and then we do so with a focus on preventing the same thing from happening in the future.
In both cases, it helps to notice what happened before the tantrum or meltdown started, and how well attempts to deal with the situation worked. In both cases, my child needs me to stay calm and to think before I act. They need us to model the behavior we want to see in them.
If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed while dealing with a tantrum or a meltdown, take a break before you reach the point of being overwhelmed – even if it’s counting to twenty in your head before your respond. And if you see a parent who looks overwhelmed while dealing with a tantrum or meltdown, give them empathy rather than judgment. Judgment will make them more overwhelmed. Heartfelt empathy might be the piece they need to pull themselves back together so that they can be the parent their child needs.
Do you want to learn more? This post was inspired by the tantrum vs. meltdown section of The Autism Discussion Page on the Core Challenges of Autism: A Toolbox for Helping Children with Autism Feel Safe, Accepted, and Competent, which is my current favorite must-read book for parents. It is an incredible resource, whether or not you have a child with an autism diagnosis. Its companion book, The Autism Discussion Page on anxiety, behavior, school, and parenting strategies, is next on my to-read list.