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The Difference Between Tantrums and Meltdowns

Sensory processing issues
The Difference Between
Tantrums and Meltdowns
By Amanda Morin
At a Glance
Tantrums and meltdowns can look alike.
It can be hard to tell the difference by just looking at an upset child.
Kids don’t have meltdowns on purpose, and they can feel bad about them afterward.
Many people think the words tantrum and meltdown mean
the same thing. And they can look very similar when you
see a child in the middle of having one. But a meltdown is
very different from a tantrum. Knowing the differences can
help you learn how to respond in a way that better
supports your child.
What a Tantrum Is
A tantrum is an outburst that happens when kids are trying
to get something they want or need. Temper tantrums are
pretty typical for toddlers and preschoolers. Once kids
have more language to express themselves, tantrums tend
to subside a little.
But some kids are more prone to tantrums even after those
early years. They continue to be impulsive and find keeping
their emotions in check challenging. They may get angry or
frustrated quickly.
Kids with these challenges might have a tantrum if they
don’t score in a game of kickball, for example. Or get upset
when siblings get more attention than they do. Yelling,
crying, and lashing out aren’t appropriate ways to express
feelings, but it’s happening for a reason. And kids
ultimately have some control over that behavior.
Kids may even stop in the middle of a tantrum to make
sure their parent or caregiver is looking at them and then
pick up where they left off. The tantrum is likely to stop
when kids get what they want—or when they realize they
won’t get what they want by acting out.
What a Meltdown Is
A meltdown is very different from a tantrum. It’s a reaction
to feeling overwhelmed.
For some kids, it happens when they’re getting too much
sensory input—that’s information coming in from their
senses. Kids may become upset by certain sounds, sights,
tastes, and textures. You might hear this called sensory
The commotion of an amusement park might set them off,
for instance. For other kids, it can be a reaction to having
too many things to think about. A back-to-school
shopping trip could cause a tantrum that triggers a
A meltdown is a reaction to trying to process too much
sensory input all at once. Too much sensory input can be
overwhelming—not just for kids, but for adults, too.
Here’s one way to think about too much sensory input.
Imagine filling a small water pitcher. Most of the time, you
can control the flow of water and fill the pitcher a little at a
time. But sometimes the water flow is too strong and the
pitcher overflows before you can turn the water off.
That’s how a meltdown based on sensory overload works.
The noise at the amusement park or the stack of clothes to
try on in the dressing room at the mall is sensory input that
floods the brain. Once that happens, some experts think
the “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. That excess input
overflows in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out, or
running away—or even just shutting down completely.
Different Strategies for Tantrums and
The causes of tantrums and meltdowns are different, and
there are strategies that can help stop each of them. A key
difference to remember is that tantrums usually have a
purpose. Kids are looking for a certain response.
Meltdowns are a reaction to something. And even if they
start out as tantrums, they’re usually beyond a child’s
Kids can often stop a tantrum once they get what they
want, or when they’re rewarded for using a more
appropriate behavior. That’s not the case with meltdowns.
Meltdowns tend to end in one of two ways. One is fatigue—
kids wear themselves out. The other is a change in the
amount of sensory input. This can help kids feel less
overwhelmed. For example, your child may start to feel
calmer when you step outside the store and leave the mall.
So how can you handle tantrums and meltdowns
To tame tantrums, acknowledge what your child
wants without giving in. Make it clear that you
understand what your child is after. “I see that you
want my attention. When your sister is done talking,
it’ll be your turn.” Then help your child see that there’s
a more appropriate behavior that will work. “When
you’re done yelling, tell me calmly that you’re ready
for my time.”
To manage a meltdown, help your child find a safe,
quiet place to de-escalate. “Let’s leave the mall and
sit in the car for a few minutes.” Then provide a calm,
reassuring presence without talking too much to your
child. The goal is to reduce how much information is
coming in.
Watching your child have a tantrum or a meltdown and
worrying about other people’s reactions can be stressful. It
may help for both you and your child to know that these
behaviors are common and they can improve.
Discover more ways to tame tantrums and manage
meltdowns. Get a better idea of the kinds of situations
that can be challenging for kids who have meltdowns. And
explore tips on how to deal with noise and other
Key Takeaways
Tantrums often happen when kids are trying to get something they want or need.
Meltdowns can occur when kids feel overwhelmed by their feelings or surroundings.
Let your child know these behaviors are common and can improve.