Tantrum or Meltdown, Which One is It? - ACC Institute of Human Services
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Tantrum or Meltdown, Which One is It?

Tantrum or Meltdown, Which One is It?

The public usually finds it difficult to tell tantrums and meltdowns apart as they may appear the same, but they are different things, with different underlying reasons and different functions. When handling and supporting children with special needs, it is important to be able to differentiate the two.

A tantrum is typically manifested as fits of temper and angry outbursts. Tantrums are often characterised by crying, screaming, and resisting to be pacified.

Meltdown, on the other hand, was originally coined to describe what occurs when, after a chain of warnings and incidents, the core of a nuclear reactor is exposed to the air. A major crisis takes place, and the likely outcomes are lethal exposure to radioactivity or a massive explosion! A special needs child’s meltdown is something quite different from the norm and a little closer to this original meaning of the word: after a series of warnings, the child becomes completely overwhelmed by the present situation and temporarily loses control of his or her behaviour. Once the youngster reaches meltdown point, he or she has pretty much lost it, and it is likely that the child will not be able to get hold of himself or herself for quite some time.

To further differentiate the two, take a look at these comparisons:



The child will look to see if his or her behaviour is getting a reaction. The child does not look or care if the people around are reacting to his or her behaviour.
The child in the middle of a tantrum takes care to be sure he or she won’t get hurt. The child in the middle of a meltdown does not consider own safety or the safety of others.
The child will use the social situation to his or her benefit. The child has no interest or involvement in the social situation.
It will end abruptly when the situation is settled or resolved. It winds down gradually and moves along under its own power.
It gives the feeling that the child is in control, although the child is pretending that he or she is not. It gives the feeling that no one is in control.
It is thrown to achieve a specific goal, and once the goal is met, things return to normal. It usually begins when a specific want has not been permitted and after a point, nothing can satisfy the child until it has run its course.

What’s the Difference?

Looking at the comparison, we get to see that the difference lies in intention, recklessness, control, and resolution. The intention of a tantrum is basically to bid for attention. A child may sneak odd glances at the parent, caregiver or teacher to see if it is working. A meltdown, however, has no plan. The child can hardly tell what the other people are thinking.

When it comes to recklessness, a child with a tantrum still has some sense of his or her limits. The child may hit someone, but will probably not hurt himself or herself. With a child having a meltdown, the breaks are entirely off. The child is too far gone to have a sense of what might or might not be dangerous, and people can really get hurt.

In terms of control, a child having a tantrum has some control over what they do. There is real distress but it’s not a psychological free-fall. They may also choose a location for a full effect, enduring that there is a public audience. The child having a meltdown has completely lost control. The child is completely overwhelmed with distress and there’s nothing they can do about it. Concerning resolution, a tantrum is typically aimed at getting something. If you give the child what they want, they will often stop suddenly. A meltdown, in contrast, slowly calms down at its own pace whether the child gets their way or not. The child’s distress has started to feed on itself and cannot be turned off, like a storm you need to wait to pass.

What Causes Meltdowns?

What causes meltdowns differ from individual to individual and meltdown to meltdown, but some common starting points are sensory, information, or emotional overload, too many demands, too much unpredictability, and communication difficulties.

If the child gets too much stimulation straight away, it may lead to panic and an ultimate meltdown. Getting too much complexity at once leads to frantic confusion and meltdown may likewise ensue. If the child has difficulties expressing themselves, it can be hard for them to manage and regulate their own emotions and to ask for help in dealing with their feelings. Without coping mechanisms to calm them down when they are anxious, a meltdown may occur as a result. If an emotion suddenly hits them, it can hit them hard, and down they go.

Too many demands which are too complex to cope with is another cause of meltdowns. If something happens that they were not prepared for, it may lead to a meltdown because the child feels unsafe. The change does not have to be huge, it can be as simple as a door handle getting broken: it normally works but it doesn’t work anymore and it can be too much for the child. What starts out as a tantrum can spiral out of control. Children with special needs may also find it difficult to communicate their wants and needs, and this difficulty may lead to frustration and eventual meltdown.

If the child has meltdowns, it is important to know how to anticipate them, identify the causes, and minimise their frequency to be able to manage them well.

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