Sarah Gatt, Psychologist
Tantrums and meltdowns are among the common challenges for parents. While tantrums and meltdowns in children might look similar (such as the child screaming and crying), they are in fact very different.
What is a Tantrum?
A tantrum is a purposeful reaction that a child has when they are trying to get something they want or need (or avoid something).
Children are only starting to develop their social and emotional skills. This means that they do not have the language that we have to express their wants, needs, and feelings. So instead, children engage in tantrum behaviours to express themselves and their feelings.
For example, imagine you are at the shops and your child wants a lolly but isn’t able to have it. Your child may then start having a tantrum by yelling and kicking, to express that they are unhappy and that they really want that lolly! Their behaviour is trying to meet a want or need (in this case it is the lolly).
See PWhen children develop more efficient and socially appropriate ways of communicating their needs, tantrum behaviours generally decrease.
If a child gets extremely worked up, a tantrum can develop into a meltdown.
What is a Meltdown?
A meltdown is an uncontrollable emotional and/or behavioural response to a prolonged stressful situation. There are two types of meltdowns: cognitive meltdowns and sensory meltdowns.
Cognitive meltdowns result from the brain becoming overworked and not being able to function properly. This may be caused by:
On the other hand, sensory meltdowns occur when there is prolonged exposure to a sensory trigger (e.g., loud noises or bright lights). The sensory situation gradually builds up to the point where the body cannot take it anymore, which triggers the meltdown.
When an individual experiences a cognitive or sensory meltdown, the person goes into a primitive self-preservation mode. During this time there is an increase in cortisol (a stress hormone in the body), which increases their blood pressure and speeds up their breathing rate. It also leads to a reduced awareness of their surroundings, increase in their pain threshold, and difficulties with communication.
Once a meltdown is over, the individual may be physically and mentally exhausted and may have little awareness of what just happened.
What is a key difference between a Meltdown and a Tantrum?
See Part 2: 5 Ways to Respond to Tantrums and Meltdowns