Can You Tell a Tantrum from a Meltdown?

Can you tell a tantrum from a meltdown? At first glance, they look the same. Learning to tell the two apart is critical for effective parenting.

Can you tell a tantrum from a meltdown?

You are just in the checkout line at the grocery store when your child suddenly grabs a candy bar and demands that you buy it, now. You NEVER buy candy from the checkout line. Your child knows this, but when you say no the suddenly fall apart, screaming and kicking. You are flustered and embarrassed. How do you respond parent effectively? First, you need to figure out if this response is a tantrum or a meltdown.

Every parent knows about tantrums. But can you tell a tantrum from a meltdown? They look very similar at first glance, but a tantrum needs to be dealt with very differently from a meltdown.

The Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown

Let’s return to the checkout aisle scenario. The first step, is to figure out your child’s real motive.

  • A child throws a tantrum because they want candy and you said no. They are sick and tired of you always saying no, and they want you to know.
  • 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 you need to be able to tell a tantrum from a meltdown in order to parent effectively.

How to Respond to a Child who is Throwing a Tantrum

A child who is throwing a tantrum can understand reason. To respond to a child who is throwing a tantrum about wanting candy, for example, you can:

  • Remind them of family rules about candy.
  • Remind them of consequences for inappropriate behavior.
  • Give them a way to make the situation right. For example, with the candy aisle tell them to return the candy so you can go home and read a book together.
  • Look for a chance to bond with your child in the near future. Tantrums are often triggered by a child feeling a lack of parental attention.

Your child may not be particularly charming during this exchange, but they will respond. It is clear to you that your child is listening, and clear to the child that you are responding.

How to Respond to a Child Who is Having a Meltdown

These three situations often trigger meltdowns in children:

  • Exhaustion
  • Over stimulation
  • Hunger

This child who is having a meltdown over candy was trying to use candy to self-soothe. When this attempt is thwarted, they fall apart and lose all ability to reason. Your response needs to communicate understanding support. Here are some simple things you can do to help a child who is having a meltdown calm down:

  • Offer a hug and empathy for wanting something they cannot have.
  • Find a space away from prying eyes where the child can calm down. Their life feels out of control.
  • Engage their thinking brain. Some kids enjoy math questions; others will respond better to a question about the plot of their favorite book.

Trying to reason with them might be ignored, or it might make things worse. If your child is having frequent meltdowns, look for ways to simplify your schedule, and provide them with calm-down activities.

How to Prevent Tantrums AND Meltdowns

The strategies for preventing tantrums and meltdowns are as different as the parenting tools for dealing with these two behaviors.

How to Prevent Tantrums

  • Prevent tantrums by setting clear expectations and being consistent.
  • When tantrums begin, remind children of these expectations and help them get back on track.
  •  Make sure children ujnderstand that they can disagree with a parent’s stance, but it needs to be through thoughtful discussion, not yelling or screaming.

If a child is having recurring tantrums, look for opportunities to spend one-on-one time with your child doing something you both enjoy. This one-on-one time does not have to last very long, but the focused attention goes a long ways towards building parent-child relationships.

How to Prevent Meltdowns

  • Prevent meltdowns by being aware of children’s needs, and letting them know ahead of time what is going to happen.
  • When you have to do something that you know will be difficult for your child, work together to come up with coping mechanisms.
  • Help your child learn to notice when they are starting to feel overwhelmed before they actually reach the point of being overwhelmed.
  • Wait until your child has calmed down to discuss the details of the incident, and then do so with a focus on preventing the same thing from happening in the future.

Final Notes

For both tantrums and meltdowns, it helps to take note of what happened before the tantrum or meltdown started, and how well attempts to deal with the situation worked. For both tantrums and meltdowns, children need parents to stay calm and to think acting. They need us to model the behavior we want to see in them.

Sometimes It Feels Like Too Much

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.

Resources for Parents

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.

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

18 thoughts on “Can You Tell a Tantrum from a Meltdown?”

  1. This is a great post! So important for the *parent* not to get overwhelmed by the child’s overwhelming behaviour and/or the overall situation. And I love your point about not judging other parents – that NEVER helps! We have no idea of everything that brought that parent and that child to that moment in time.

    This distinction between wilfulness (tantrum) and an emotional meltdown is very important. I will keep it in mind for my own kids and for other parents with whom I discuss empathy and discipline, particularly the increasing numbers being diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

    How do you suggest we express empathy to a parent we don’t know who is struggling, say in a shopping centre or at church? I tend to just avoid looking in order to make them not feel like so much of a spectacle, but I’m interested to hear how you respond.

    1. I think a lot of time not looking is the best you can do, but I remember reading a story about a pediatrician (that I actually tried to find when I was writing this post, but with no luck) where he went up to a young mother who was clearly losing it and said, “It’s so hard…” and she switched from angry at her child to feeling remorse for her anger and relief for someone giving her a little bit of compassion.

  2. I also appreciate the reminder to set expectations. It can be really hard for me to get a word in edgewise with my kids because they are so talkative. I should work a little harder to steer the conversation to expectations when we are going places.

  3. I think one of the keys to telling a meltdown from a tantrum is to listen to what the child is saying, too. This can be difficult in a public space, because the child is usually not expressing them self calmly – but the words are usually still there. We usually try to head both off before they happen, as fits, and especially public fits are not our favorite things.

  4. Great distinction. I love posts that help me become a better observer of my son. Making this distinction will help how I respond as well– and yes, I have noticed a tantrum I can talk him through, a meltdown no way. We had an upswing in meltdowns last week after not having any for a long time, so this is on my mind. I found you on #mama2mama mondays! I’m new to the blogworld!

  5. This is an awesome post … I recently wrote about the importance of tantrums as a way to release old, pent up emotions and to learn how to deal with emotional overwhelm. I see it as a crucial stage that we all have to go through … I now see that I was writing about meltdowns. Important distinction – thank you for clarifying that for me!

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