What’s The Difference Between A Tantrum And A Meltdown?

Having children means having to navigate their moods and behavioral outbursts, sometimes at the most inopportune time. Most every parent can share their own story of having to leave a restaurant or party public activity thanks to an overtired or stressed out child who has thrown the mother of all temper tantrums.

Parents are quick to discuss their child's temper tantrum or meltdown, often using the two terms interchangeably, but in fact a temper tantrum isn't the same as a meltdown. Although they can look very similar from the outside, a meltdown is very different from a temper tantrum. Here's how you can tell the difference.

Temper tantrums often happen as a result of your child not being able to adequately express their feelings about a particular situation. It is "the expression of a young child's frustration with the challenges of the moment," according to The Mayo Clinic.  Tantrums can happen when your child doesn't get his way. Maybe a sibling refuses to share a favorite toy, or perhaps they didn't get ice cream when they asked for it. Understood.org even suggests that your child may stop mid-tantrum to ensure you're looking at them and paying attention to their outburst.

Tantrums often stop as soon as a child gets their way, or when they realize they are absolutely not going to get their way. “The temper tantrum is a tactic to try and see if that will work to get what he or she wants,”Amori Mikami, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia told Today's Parent.

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child tantrum
Credit: iStock / PaulBiryukov

Sensory meltdowns may look a lot like a temper tantrum but in fact they're very different. A meltdown often happens when a child feels overwhelmed or overstimulated, causing them to be confused and frightened and in turn they lash out. "Sensory meltdowns are not social interactions like tantrums," Brain Balance Centers explains. "The child rarely cares whether anyone pays him or her attention. The meltdown is also unlikely to disappear as soon as the want is met. Instead, it will abate slowly after the offensive stimulus has been removed."

Experts suggest with a temper tantrum that parents explain to the child you understand why they're upset, but not to give in. With a meltdown, it's important to try to remove your child from the situation that is causing the anxiety and move them to a safe, quiet space where they can decompress.

Parenting is never easy but hopefully understanding the cause of behavioral outbursts and how to best handle them can make it a bit easier.

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