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At first glance, tantrums and meltdowns look very alike, it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between them. Knowing and understanding this difference can help you to help your child!
Both tantrums and meltdowns can involve screaming, crying, running away and/or throwing toys. However, when a child is tantruming, they are typically in control of their own behaviour and actions. They are likely looking directly at you and waiting for your reaction. For example as they pick up something to throw it across the room or on the floor, they glance up to see if you are looking. Their shouting might get louder when you try to speak and they are likely repeatedly shouting what is that they do or don’t want “no, no, no, no”, “ I want X”.
However, a meltdown is different on all of these points, a child who is experiencing a meltdown is unlikely looking at you for your reaction, considering their safety and in control of their own behaviour. Meltdowns are generally a reaction feeling overwhelmed, it could be due to sensory overload. It could happen in places where there is a lot of sensory stimuli to process or also where there is too much to think about. Using the above example, they may throw whatever it is that their hand reaches for first and this does not matter if it is their most loved toy or a glass on the table and they are certainly not checking in for a reaction from you. In addition they are likely not communicating what they want.
For a meltdown, these are some of the best ways to react to the situation:
As tantrums are very different, when these occur we should not react by giving the child what they want, instead wait for them to calm down and encourage them to ask appropriately (this can be applied to all methods of communication- verbal requesting, requesting with visuals or pointing). This shows that appropriate communication is much more powerful and that they don’t need to engage in such behaviours to access what they want.