It can be very difficult to determine whether your child is throwing a tantrum or having a sensory meltdown. My daughter used to have full-on screaming meltdowns. On seeing one of those, some people would label her naughty when, in actual fact, she was struggling to cope. I quickly realized she was not just being a frustrated 2-year-old when her shouting episodes were not about getting something she wanted. She would just scream and shout and thrash around the room for over 20 minutes on end, and nothing we did could calm her.
How do we tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?
Tantrums usually have a purpose. You will see that your child is looking for a response or a certain outcome. For instance, they want candy, you say no, and then they proceed to throw a tantrum. If you give in, the child stops as the goal has been achieved. If you ignore the tantrum, they stop or look around to see if anyone is watching in the middle of it all. Many tantrums can also result from frustration. Your child may not have the words to express what they want and this frustration breeds a tantrum. Again, as soon as you meet their need, the episode ends. Sometimes a tantrum can morph into a meltdown.
A sensory meltdown is a reaction to something in the environment that is usually beyond your child’s control. It’s not a behavioral issue. Instead, it happens when your child is overwhelmed. They can’t cope with everything going on around them and can’t control their emotions and feelings during the sensory overload.
It’s like a switch in the brain is flipped on, and the fight-or-flight response kicks in. No amount of reasoning or discipline will help when the child is in this state because the brain thinks they are in danger and fighting for survival. It is physically impossible to think rationally in this state.
Although sensory meltdowns are more common in people with SPD (sensory processing disorder) and ASD (autism spectrum disorder), they can happen to anyone.
This 3-point checklist can help you determine whether it is a temper tantrum or a sensory meltdown.
- Intensity: Although tantrums can be quite intense and include screaming, hitting, and stomping, a meltdown is worse. A sensory meltdown doesn’t start at 0, as a tantrum does. Instead, it kicks off at 100 and just keeps on escalating.
- Length: Tantrums usually subside when children get what they want or realize that they are not getting the desired attention. Thus, if ignored, the child will calm down. This doesn’t usually happen with a meltdown, which typically lasts longer and is more difficult for your child to shake off. It also usually entails removing your kid from the situation to a calmer and safer environment to help them regain control.
- Frequency: Toddler tantrums are common—some kids will even try them several times a day. It is their way of testing the boundaries. Meltdowns, on the other hand, are usually less frequent.
My daughter, for example, would have a meltdown every few days. This would include shouting and rolling around on the floor, which, to an outsider, may look like her just being very naughty. However, there were some significant differences between her meltdowns and regular tantrums.
Firstly, the meltdowns were so intense that nothing could calm her — she was totally out of control. I would take her to her room and just sit with her. She didn’t want me to touch her, but neither would she let me leave the room. This was extremely difficult; I felt totally helpless because nothing worked. So, I would just sit with her in her room and wait it out. I would catch her if she tried to hurl herself against the floor or a wall and then just sit, lovingly waiting. This could easily go on for 20 to 40 minutes. It was not about getting anything or looking for attention—she simply wasn’t coping. This is a clear example of all 3 points in the checklist.
How to deal with toddler tantrums
It is important to acknowledge your child’s feelings without giving in to their demands. The best way to do this is by making sure that you calm yourself before engaging with your child. The last thing you need is to have mom and kid caught in a battle of wills, their emotions running high.
You need to be firm and stand your ground. If you give in, your child will learn that all they need to do to get their way is throw a tantrum. If you are steadfast, they will soon learn that screaming and thrashing around will not get them what they want, so they will soon abandon this behavior. This is how you get your toddler to stop screaming for no reason.
Meltdowns: How to respond positively to support a distressed child
As with tantrums, it is important to acknowledge your child’s feelings. You need to be calm and understand that this is a control problem—your child is not coping. It is not a behavioral issue, so disciplining the kid won’t help. If anything, it will make matters worse.
You need to be emotionally involved and supportive. If possible, remove the child from the situation. Step in if they are about to hurt themselves and make sure they know you are there for them in this distressing time.
When your child is ready, give them a big bear hug as this will tell them they are safe. It helps if they’re sitting on your lap, their body enveloped in your arms. This will give them deep pressure input, which can help calm them down.
You can teach children who are a little older to give themselves a big bear hug to help control and center themselves.
Prevention is better than cure
I found that the best way to deal with meltdowns is to prevent them. If you can figure out your child’s trigger, you can try to avoid it. It could be labels on clothing, loud noises, bright lights, or touch sensitivities. You can also use a sensory diet during the day to help your child regulate and prevent them from going over the edge. A sensory diet includes sensory activities such as swinging, modeling with playdough, and stroking the skin with a soft brush.
In my daughter’s case, this made a huge difference. It has been almost 3 years since she started having those meltdowns, and things have improved considerably. She hardly has any meltdowns now. We still include sensory diet activities into her routine every day, which helps her cope. She has also learned to control herself better and exit the situation when she starts feeling overwhelmed. She is nearly 5 and understands a lot already, so have faith that it will get better.
Happy parenting and may the odds be ever in your favor.