Is There A Difference Between A Tantrum And A Meltdown, And How Do You Prevent Them?

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In order to decrease tantrums, setting clear expectations of appropriate behavior is important.

Tantrums and meltdowns are one of the hardest parenting challenges. Often, it's difficult to understand why it happened, even harder to prevent, and extremely challenging to end. When is your child’s emotional breakdown considered a tantrum and when is it a meltdown? And, how do you solve them?

“First, it is important to understand that a lot of people say that tantrums and meltdowns are two different things, but they really aren’t,” explains

Dr. Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., HSPP, BCBA-D, a psychologist at Indiana University Health’s Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center. “It’s really based on how the parent chooses to describe it. These aren’t clinical terms, they are more descriptions of behaviors that a parent has labeled. However, tantrums are more often described as mild outbursts where the child is somewhat more controlled, is able to speak, and can respond to your questions. A more severe, higher-level tantrum where they may not have as much control and it inhibits what they are doing, could be described as a meltdown.”

Whether or not these behaviors are clinically distinct, if a parent references a tantrum or a meltdown, it is a clear indication that the child is having a difficult time regulating their emotions, and it is important to understand the underlying behavior problems.

Age plays an important role in these behaviors. For preschool-aged children, minor tantrums and irritability will occur on a relatively frequent basis as they do not yet have a good understanding of emotions or the ability to regulate. Older children, between the ages of five and seven, may still experience occasional tantrums, but they should become less frequent. If the tantrums or meltdowns are at a level beyond a parent’s control or they are interfering with progression in some way – such as inhibiting them from staying in a classroom or making friends – then there is cause for concern and parents should seek help.

“There are lots of things that can trigger these problems, so you have to figure out what is the most likely or common reason or variable,” Fodstad advises. “Sometimes when a child is angry, anxious, overly worrisome or overwhelmed, it may cause them to freak out and have a tantrum or meltdown. Other times, it could be related to a developmental disability or something in their environment that is telling them this is the best way to get attention.”

There are some conditions that cause more frequent tantrums or meltdowns, such as ADHD, learning disorders or anxiety, to name a few. For a child with ADHD or a learning disorder, they could act out because they are having difficulties at school or with homework, and they are frustrated. Children with anxiety may not be able to manage their fears and the stress causes them to throw a tantrum.

Sometimes, however, a child’s environment or learned behaviors plays a key role in their tantrums. “For example, if you are grocery shopping with your child and they ask for candy at the checkout and you say no, they may start escalating,” Dr. Fodstad explains. “Some parents will ask, ‘will you calm down if you take this candy,’ and when the child says yes, so parent gives it to them. Now the child has learned that if they act out, they will get the candy. Even if it’s only one out of 10 times, it’s enough to make that tantrum continue.”

In order to decrease tantrums, setting clear expectations of appropriate behavior is important. Children should also learn appropriate skills, such as impulse control and delayed gratification, while they are calm and then prompted when they are beginning to get upset. And, most importantly during a tantrum or meltdown, make sure your child and others are safe, then walk away until they are calm again. Do not reward the behavior with attention.

-- By Gia Miller

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