Tantrums vs. Meltdowns: Reading Emotional Outbursts

Tantrums vs. Meltdowns: Reading Emotional Outbursts

Children experience emotional outbursts as they age, but not all outbursts are the same. Although these are not clinical terms, emotional outbursts can be placed into two categories: tantrums or meltdowns. 

A tantrum can occur when a child tries to get what they want or need and can’t. Although they are typical during the toddler and preschool years, they subside as the child builds verbal communication and reasoning. However, we all know tantrums can pop up from time to time, like if they lose a game or don’t think they are receiving enough attention. They can display a quick temper, impulsivity, and inappropriate actions. A child having a tantrum still has some control over their actions and is likely to stop when they get what they want or realize this behavior is not getting the desired outcome. 

meltdown, on the other hand, is when a child can no longer control their emotions, resulting in an irrational response. These can only be soothed by the child knowing that they are safe and protected by an adult, or they will eventually wear themselves out. Meltdowns can be caused by overstimulation from their environment, certain sensory inputs such as smell or noise (known as a sensory overload), or as a result of overthinking and anxiety.

What are the triggers for these outbursts? 

There are a variety of reasons for this, but here are a few from an Occupational Therapy (OT) perspective:

Difficulties regulating emotions – If a child feels slighted, anger can rear its ugly head. It can look like rage when they are screaming, crying, hitting, or throwing objects. They may feel that something they deserve or need is being purposely withheld from them and they cannot control their frustration.

Anxiety – If a child is scared or anticipating an unfamiliar or negative situation, their flight-fight-fright response can kick into high gear. They may not exhibit any warning signs, they may sit in silence, or become very talkative. However, once triggered by stress, their emotions may take hold, making it difficult to rationalize the situation appropriately. 

Attention – If a child has attention issues, their brain cannot filter out extraneous information. This makes it difficult to identify what is important and what isn’t. This can cause the brain to work overtime, resulting in an outburst. One study from Fordham University reports that more than 75% of children who presented temper outbursts also fit the criteria for ADHD. 

Learning Difficulties – If a child is struggling to understand their schoolwork, they may become anxious, frustrated, or irritable. They may not ask for assistance, but resort to acting out in class or destroying their assignments, knowing that this behavior will distract or delay from the underlying issue.  

Sensory Processing Issues – If a child has difficulties processing sensory information, this can result in an emotional outburst towards the end of the day. They may go through their day tolerating various stimuli and expending their energy to do so. But when they get home, they need a time out from everything and everyone. If they don’t get the proper time to decompress, they may reach their tipping point and trigger an outburst.

Handling an Outburst

Remember that tantrums are driven by a purpose and will stop once they receive what they want or are rewarded using appropriate behavior. Meltdowns do not end unless the child wears themselves out or they can feel safe from the what’s affecting them. It’s crucial to figure out the trigger first. 

Ask yourself:
Are they trying to express something they want or need?
Do they need a change of environment/situation?
Do they want attention or are they trying to escape attention?
What is happening immediately before, during, and after the outbursts that might be contributing factors? 

By figuring out what is causing the behavior, parents can defuse and handle the issue accordingly, as well as create a plan for anticipating future outbursts. OTs do this by re-structuring the activity, providing assistance to problem solve, modifying the environment, or discussing strategies when overwhelmed.  

For tantrums, acknowledge what your child wants without giving in. Make it clear that you know what your child wants, but then help them find more appropriate ways to express themselves, like through compromise and patience. 

If they are sore about losing a game, have them explain why they think they lost and how they could get better. They could also play the game in teams, or you could introduce a new game. If they want your attention and are going about it negatively, acknowledge them, give them a time window, and stick to it.

Tantrums from young kids are very different than tantrums from toddlers. Encourage them to verbally communicate and use their reasoning. This is definitely easier said than done, but your patience is key as well. It is just as important to control your own emotions and not escalate the outburst.

For meltdowns, help your child find a safe and quiet place to de-escalate. Say your child starts a meltdown at a party. Scoop them up, tell the host you’ll be right back, and bring them to your car or another room. You don’t have to say much. Just hold/rock them and let them cry it out. The goal is to reduce the amount of stimulation. Once they’re calm, you can ask them what may have caused all the tears and come up with a plan to handle the rest of the party. If they are just done with the event, don’t force them to go back. You and your child can discuss the situation later and what strategies to implement for the next time.

Other tips to help calm behaviors:

  • Teach your child about their emotions and feelings. The OT Emotions chart is great for this. Label different emotions and have them describe how each emotion feels. By doing this, you build empathy and the ability to express emotions verbally.
  • Explain the difference between feelings and behaviors. Your child has the right to feel any emotion that they want. HOWEVER, they need to know how to appropriately express those feelings. Just because they’re angry doesn’t mean they can hit someone. Just because they are sad doesn’t mean they can plop on the floor and cause a public scene. If the behavior requires discipline, stop the outburst and leave the discipline for afterwards. For our son, we have said, “You are very upset, but we do not hit. Please sit in your chair. When you’ve calmed down, let’s talk about what’s going on.”
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Phrases like “stop crying” or “it’s not that big of a deal” can send negative messages that their feelings are wrong or stupid. By acknowledging their feelings and their reasons, you give value to their emotion and their perspective. Help them understand that emotions come and go, letting them learn to grapple and reason with certain situations. 
  • Help your child learn how to regulate their emotions. By doing this, you teach them how to turn a stressful moment into a peaceful one, or a turn bad morning into a good afternoon. Here’s some suggestions:
    • Practice deep breathing (Count in for 4, out for 4)
    • Counting to calm down
    • Have them actively “take a moment”
    • Create a calming space, like a tent or comfy chair. You could have a weighted/heavy blanket or pillows. A rocking chair or swing can also provide calming, rhythmical movement.
    • Create a calm-down kit filled with activities and objects that will help them reset (coloring, lotion and scents, music, certain textures, favorite books or toys, etc).
    • Journal or draw to reflect
    • Talk out feelings to problem-solve a situation
    • Go outside to get fresh air

If your child is struggling with their emotional behavior and it’s causing problems in their daily life, or affecting school or peer/family relationships, talk to your pediatrician. 

Children are constantly navigating their emotions and the world around them. The best that we can do as parents is to guide them with patience and understanding. 

Why Do Kids Have Tantrums and Meltdowns?: Understanding them is the first step to reducing them“, Caroline Miller. Child Mind Institute.
How to Handle Tantrums and Meltdowns: Tips for helping children learn better ways to express powerful emotions“, Caroline Miller. Child Mind Institute.
The Difference Between Tantrums and Meltdowns“, Amanda Morin. Understood.org.
How to Help an Overly Emotional Child Cope With Their Feelings“, Amy Morin, LCSW. Verywell Family, September 29, 2019.
Barker, L. (2012). Sensory Processing: Behavior, Memory, and Learning. Live Lecture. Atlanta, GA. Trott, M. (2010). Sensory Integration and Behavior Strategies Can Work Together! Live Lecture. Atlanta, GA. 

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