The Difference Between Tantrums and Meltdowns

child tantrum or meltdown

The definition of a meltdown is an involuntary reaction to overstimulation. There is little to no control on the sufferer’s part. Instead, the child is triggered by something which illicits a response. Tantrums, on the other hand, are a voluntary reaction meant to manipulate another person. The ability to distinguish between the two will help ease the situation and properly address the issue.

Here are some tips to help you recognize whether your child is having a meltdown or a tantrum:

1. Where is your child looking? When he/she is having a tantrum they will most likely be looking at you because they want to make sure they get your attention. But during a meltdown the child isn’t looking for a reaction so they typically don’t care if you’re watching or not.

2. Is the child aware of his or her social setting? Tantrum throwers will use certain situations to their advantage to get what they want. When it’s a meltdown, it doesn’t matter if it’s in a public place or at home.

3. Do they consider their own safety? When throwing a tantrum, the child will be aware of their surroundings and try to not get hurt. For meltdowns, the child is not concerned with anyone’s safety including their own.


When does the behavior stop? Tantrums will stop as soon as the child gets what they want. Once they get the toy or the piece of candy they were yelling for, their behavior will change. But with a meltdown, it can seem like nothing will calm him/her. It will need to run its course.

There is still good news! Once you’ve determined your child is having a meltdown there are some things you can try to help:

1. Learn the triggers. You will need to watch you child carefully when they are having a meltdown. Was it caused by the lighting? Loud noises? Too many people? Take note of the signals to watch for in the future.

2. Try to avoid injury. If your child tends to throw things, move him/her away from sharp objects or in a room without other people.

3. Comfort them. Find something soothing. For some kids, comfort can be sought through deep pressure treatments, massages, rocking back and forth, or a favorite toy.

4. Use previously defined cues. Work with your child on better understanding consequences. When he/she is having a meltdown you can use those soothing tones and words to be reassuring.

5. Avoid public places. This is easier said than done. But if you have an option to go to less crowded places, take it.

6. Take a third party. It’s always nice to have a helping hand. And when you’re out running errands you can leave the store to help your child if they have a meltdown.

7. Have a plan of action in place. Scope the place out early. You can even talk to the staff about your child’s needs.

8. Involve the child in your activities. This helps distract them so they are less likely to have a meltdown.

9. Discuss behavior beforehand. This will help the child know what is expected from them.

Many people think there is nothing you can do if your child is acting out in public. But knowing whether it’s a tantrum or a meltdown will make a world of difference for everyone. Ideally, as your child gets older, he/she will develop ways to cope with sensory overload so meltdowns will be less frequent.

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By Raiza Belarmino