Understanding the Difference Between Child Tantrums & Meltdowns

A recent survey of 1,500 parents found that one in four moms said they would pay $50 or more to avoid a tantrum with their child.1 Despite being a normal part of child development, they are extremely frustrating for parents, who may feel at a loss on how to prevent them or control them when they inevitably occur.2 But does there come a time when you should be concerned about tantrums? And how do you deal with tantrums in a way that teaches your child lifelong skills of self soothing and self regulation? We’ll look into why tantrums happen, how they relate to meltdowns, and how to tell if they’re a sign of a more serious issue.

Why Tantrums & Meltdowns Happen

According to the Cleveland Clinic, temper tantrums occur when a child has an unplanned outburst of rage or frustration.3 They can be physical, verbal, or a bit of both. For many children, especially those under four years old, these explosions occur because they do not know how to articulate what they want or need with words. Sometimes, the trigger can be as simple as hunger, tiredness, or illness. In other cases, tantrums and meltdowns happen as a result of underlying anxiety or conditions such as ADHD, autism, or sensory processing disorder. Despite whatever is causing it, in most cases, a tantrum is disproportionate to the circumstances, which makes it difficult for the parent to calm the tantruming child down. Meltdowns may happen for the same reason as tantrums, though they are characterized by more extreme reactions as described in the next section. 

Tantrums vs. Meltdowns: Are They the Same?

Often used interchangeably, meltdowns and tantrums are markedly different in terms of intensity. According to Child Mind Institute, tantrums are described as “milder outbursts,” which typically resolve on their own when ignored.4 During tantrums, children may still be able to maintain some level of control over their behavior. Meltdowns, on the other hand, usually require some parental intervention unless the child gets exhausted. During a meltdown, a child may seem to completely lose control.  

Can a Tantrum Turn Into a Meltdown?

While tantrums typically stop when the child gets what he or she wants or when they give up, there is a chance it may lead to a full-blown meltdown. Typically, when a child feels overwhelmed by sensory overload and hasn’t yet learned tools and techniques to self-regulate, their tantrum might spiral out of control and become a meltdown. This is especially true if the child is struggling with a condition like ADHD or autism.

Meltdowns Associated with ADHD

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When a child struggles with ADHD, everyday life can seem like an obstacle course filled with one stressful situation after the next. This daily struggle can lead a child with ADHD to see triggers everywhere, leading to built up frustration and rage. Combine these triggers with some of the more common symptoms of ADHD, like impulsivity and impaired executive function, and meltdowns are bound to occur. Executive function and self-regulation skills are highly interrelated and rely on the same areas of the brain.5 Research shows that ADHD affects executive function skills, leading to difficulty in managing one's emotions and coping with stress effectively.6 

Meltdowns Associated with Autism

Autistic children often have trouble articulating when they are feeling overly anxious or overwhelmed, paving the way for a meltdown to occur. Common symptoms of autism like hypersensitivity to sensory  input or receiving too much information at once may also lead the autistic child to feel overwhelmed and overburdened, leading to an outburst. According to the Autism Awareness Centre in the U.K., there are two ways to distinguish a temper tantrum from an autism meltdown:

  1. Temper tantrums are goal-oriented in which the child is trying to get something or get out of doing something, whereas an autism meltdown occurs from feeling overloaded with information or stimuli.
  2. Tantrums need an audience, while autism meltdowns will happen with or without anyone watching.

Key Takeaways

Whether your child has ADHD, is autistic, or is simply a young child learning how to cope with life’s stressors, tantrums and meltdowns are rarely easy and never enjoyable. In summary:

  • Tantrums often occur when a child is unable to express what he or she wants or needs
  • Meltdowns are more intense than tantrums and often involve a loss of control
  • Tantrums are a normal part of child development, but they may be a sign of anxiety, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, or autism (especially if they regularly occur after the age of four)
  • Meltdowns associated with ADHD are typically a result of impaired executive function skills
  • Meltdowns associated with autism are related to sensory, information, or emotional overload
When dealing with a tantrum or meltdown, try the following tips to manage them more effectively:

  • Make note of common triggers so you can better prepare your child or avoid them altogether
  • In terms of tantrums, if the child is not in danger of harming him or herself or others, you can ignore it; giving attention to the tantrum may only make things worse
  • Model calm and appropriate behavior and be clear about behavioral expectations to improve communication with your child
  • Teach your child self-soothing skills and mindfulness techniques like slow breathing and meditation, which they can turn to when they start to feel upset  
If you still need help in dealing with your child’s tantrums and meltdowns, consider trying Brillia, a non-prescription, homeopathic medication that is designed to reduce feelings of impulsivity, hyperactivity, irritability, and anxiety while enhancing clarity and focus. Unlike stimulant medications often prescribed for ADHD and autism, Brillia has no harmful side effects or contraindications with other medications; it will not cause drowsiness, weight gain, weight loss, insomnia, or fatigue. Using antibodies to the brain-specific S100 protein (S100B), which regulates many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes, Brillia offers a targeted approach, which does not affect any other systems in the body. To maximize its effectiveness, Brillia relies on a 5-Pillar approach of healthy lifestyle habits like following a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, reducing screen time, and practicing mindfulness. This combined approach helps to reduce the likelihood and intensity of emotional outbursts while also providing children with coping skills they’ll use throughout their lives. Learn more about how Brillia works

References: 1https://www.fatherly.com/news/tantrums-money-stop-survey/, 2https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/tantrums.html, 3https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14406-temper-tantrums, 4https://childmind.org/article/why-do-kids-have-tantrums-and-meltdowns/, 5https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/, 6https://www.additudemag.com/7-executive-function-deficits-linked-to-adhd/
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