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Meltdowns vs. Tantrums

Guest post by Dr Angela Gonzales

Licensed Davis Autism Approach and Concepts for Life Facilitator / Workshop Presenter

When I present a workshop on Autism and I ask the parents in the room, “Is there a difference between a meltdown and a tantrum?”, the response of positive nods and “Oh yeah” is immediate.  Others in the room appear to be a little more perplexed, wondering the relevance of the question.

Most of us have had personal experiences either observing or being at the “Oh my gosh! How do I control this?”, end of a tantrum. But, others have had the repetitive experiences of experiencing meltdowns, either within themselves or by others.

So, what is the difference? Why write about them? Aren’t they the same thing but just different names?

No. What they are and how we should handle them are completely different.

What is a Meltdown and what is a Tantrum?

To understand this, we need to understand a little (don’t worry, very little) about neurotypical childhood development.

In neurotypical childhood development, there are stages.  The end of the first stage of development occurs in neurotypical children around the age of two.  The end of this stage is ushered in by the onset of individuation (a fancy word meaning the realization that we are separate, individual units from all the things and people around us). With individuation, we realize that we have personal wants and don’t-wants, and we decide it’s time to let everyone around us know what those are.  The behavior that arises from this realization has been termed the “Terrible Two’s.”  This period is characterized by Tantrums. You know what those are – when a two-year-old wants candy at checkout and you say “No,” yelling, crying, dropping to the floor, turning red, holding their breath, etc. ensues.  There is some level of conscious control that is occurring during a tantrum. If the behavior is reinforced, it will continue.  If the behavior is disciplined, consistently (not just the one time, people!) it will cease.

Meltdown is something totally different.

If I see a lizard in my office, I am going to scream (I know this to be true because it has happened more than once). If someone steps on your foot, you are going to pull it away.  You will not think about it first, it is instinctual. I cannot tell you why I scream when I see a lizard in the office and not when I see them outside, but I do.  The response is generated from somewhere other than my conscious self.  It is again, instinctual.  You cannot tell me enough times not to scream when I see it for me not to scream.

When someone is having a meltdown, we cannot talk them through it! You cannot rationalize someone out of a meltdown because it is generated from that visceral place of instinctual response.  It also doesn’t matter whether you think whatever has ‘triggered’ the meltdown is a reasonable thing to have a meltdown about.  You do not get to determine that unless you are the one having the meltdown.  Meltdown triggers are specific to the individual. It could be the texture of the mac-and-cheese, the fact that someone is too close to them, the feeling of the tag from a shirt, the smell of the neighbor’s cat, the sound of the bubbling spaghetti sauce… the possibilities are endless. So, the question then is, “what do we do”?

How do we Handle a

​Meltdown vs. a Tantrum?


Protect and support a MELTDOWN

Discipline a TANTRUM

What does that mean?

It means, that if your kiddo is having a meltdown, remove them from the stimulus, protect them from more triggers, make their surroundings physically and emotionally safe, and do what you know calms them.  Most of all, regulate your own response. Stay cool and even-tempered in your actions and emotions. These individuals respond more to how you are ‘being’ than what you are saying or doing.

If your child or student is exhibiting behavior that you know precedes a meltdown, remove them from the stimulus, attempt to redirect their attention and give them whatever they use for self-soothing. Again, get yourself in order – stay cool and even-tempered.

In the future, avoid those things that trigger meltdowns. You know what they are – because all parents are the world’s greatest project managers.

If, on the other hand, your child is having a tantrum – this is the time to remain calm and firm. If you told them they can’t have the candy at the cash register, then please do not give in. Remain consistent and let them know that if they continue the negative behavior (say this in ‘little kid’ terms) then (fill in the blank) is going to happen. Then if they continue, the (fill in the blank) has got to happen.

The more steadfast you are in your consistent response to tantrums, the shorter the terrible two’s (or terrible fourteens) will be.

Hope this helps. Love you all.

Remember, keep it simple.

Dr. Angie

To find out more about Dr Angie and what she offers, you can go to her website:  Dr Angie's Place

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