Written By: DiveThru Team

Reviewed By: Dr. Carrie Jackson Ph.D.


Tantrum vs Meltdown: What’s the Difference?

PUBLISHED Oct 25th, 2021 & UPDATED ON Apr 27th, 2023

If you’re a parent, you’ve likely dealt with your child having a tantrum before. Maybe your child didn’t want to leave the park that day, or brushing their teeth was a biiiig no from them. A tantrum can include crying, screaming, lashing out, and some really overwhelming emotions. It’s stressful for you and your child! They don’t know how to communicate all of their wants and needs, so it boils over. But a tantrum and a meltdown are two very different things. For a child with autism, a meltdown is much more than trying to get what they want, or not being able to communicate their feelings. Let’s dive into the differences between a tantrum vs meltdown!

What Is a Tantrum?

We’ve talked about toddler tantrums before, but here’s a quick summary. 

When kids don’t know how to communicate their emotions, it can lead to them reacting in really big ways. A tantrum is usually a way of relaying a want or a need to the parent but without the emotional vocab to talk about it. They want to get a chocolate bar from the grocery store, and when you don’t let them get one, they go from 0 to 100 because they were denied something they wanted.

Tantrums are most common in the toddler years. This is when they’re just learning how to talk and still working on handling emotions. This can be a great time to introduce them to the feelings wheel, so they can put words to their feelings! And if you need the feelings wheel to work through your own emotions about tantrums, we toootally understand. We’re here for you. Your journal is here for you. We’ll get through it all together.

What Is a Meltdown?

The word “meltdown” has been used as a synonym for “tantrum,” but a tantrum and a meltdown are very different. An autistic meltdown describes a situation where an autistic person gets very overwhelmed by their surroundings. The results of a meltdown can look similar to a tantrum, with crying, yelling, hitting themselves or others, and other big physical reactions. They can also freeze on the spot, be unable to talk, or run away from an overwhelming situation.

Unlike a tantrum, a meltdown is much more difficult to control. A meltdown can be the result of sensory overload. Many people with autism have heightened sensitivities to particular sensations, like the feeling of certain types of clothing, being touched by people, loud noises, strong scents, or bright lights. When they are subjected to their sensitivities too much, it can become deeply uncomfortable, to the point of a meltdown. It can also be the result of changes in their routine or environment. 

Similar to a tantrum, a meltdown can be related to communication difficulties. With autistic children, a meltdown may be the result of being uncomfortable in their current situation but not knowing how to express that to a parent. 

They can sometimes show signs of distress before a meltdown, called “rumblings.” This can include pleas to leave a situation, more agitated stimming (like hand waving, hitting themselves, rocking, or other self-soothing behaviours), and pacing. Meltdowns can happen in autistic teens and adults as well. 

How to Handle a Child’s Meltdown

A meltdown can trigger a lot of negative emotions in a child. It’s important to remember that, unlike a tantrum, a meltdown isn’t as easily managed, and isn’t used to get something they want. The child may feel guilty or ashamed afterwards. Having empathy after a meltdown will be super helpful!

The child will need the time to go through the meltdown. It may take a while, and they may be exhausted afterwards, but it will pass. It’s important for you to remain calm in the situation so you don’t add to the overwhelming sensations they’re already dealing with.

It’s a good idea to take them to a quiet, calming space. If they’re in public and it’s becoming too loud or crowded, getting them away from people will be a good call. Generally speaking, the less stimulation that’s coming at them, the better. 

Anything that brings them comfort will help. Try using their favourite stuffed animal or blanket, headphones with calming music, or a safe space at home that relaxes them. You’ll know your child best, so work with their needs.

Ask the child if they’re okay when they seem to be calming down. They may not communicate with you, which is fine too. 

After a meltdown occurs, it can be helpful to keep a record of what may have caused it. Understanding your child’s triggers will be a great way to try to lessen the frequency of meltdowns. 

Even if you’re fully prepared and tried your best, meltdowns may still happen from time to time, and that’s totally okay. It’s not a negative reflection on your parenting. Again, it can’t be controlled! So handling them as they happen, and keeping track of triggers to avoid if possible, is your best bet.

You Can Always Seek Professional Help

If you’re having trouble dealing with tantrums or meltdowns, or don’t know how to distinguish the two, you can always go to a mental health professional for guidance. They’ll provide advice on what can help your child, and give you the tools to make your life, and your child’s, smoother to handle. 

It’s definitely understandable if you’re having a tough time handling a tantrum or meltdown! It does not make you a bad parent. There’s no one way to be a good parent, and every child is different. You’re doing your best, and we’re proud of you!!

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