Meltdown or a Tantrum in Children?

Meltdown or a Tantrum in Children?

Recognising and understanding the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum is critical to help support people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Aspergers and Down Syndrome.The interventions used with meltdowns and tantrums are completely opposite, and using the wrong strategies will only make the situations worse.

Individuals living with these disorders may experience meltdowns that can be embarrassing for the carer as they feel judged for how their child is acting and their lack of ability to stop their behaviour. It is therefore important that the carer understands the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum, and also how to handle a meltdown before and during the episode. It is also important for other adults to understand that the child at the shops that is having a “tantrum” may instead be having a meltdown, and the carer is doing the best that they can to improve the situation.

Tantrums are purposeful manipulations of behaviour to achieve a desired result. Tantrums in children are usually the result of being told “no” to something they want to have or do. The tantrum is a last-ditch effort to try to get their way and is often seen as a power play. It is best for the carer to not give in to their demands. Otherwise, the child may associate that they get what they want when having a tantrum, which can make the unwanted behaviour more prevalent.

Meltdowns are intense, involuntary emotional and behavioural responses to stressful situations. The child is not trying to get their way, but in fact, has lost control of their behaviour. Normally it is a build-up of frustration due to prolonged exposure to sensory triggers or cognitive overload, without a chance to get away from the overwhelming stimulation that escalates before hitting ‘melting’ point. It can also be an abrupt and explosive reaction to something not going to plan. This loss of behavioural control can be both physical (kicking, biting, etc.) and verbal (screaming, crying, etc.).The child is actually in pain because of the sensory overload.

Key Differences

Intention: A tantrum is an attempt by the child to gain control or attention. They may often sneak a glance to see if it’s working. A meltdown has no plan, and they do not intend to manipulate their parents or caregivers.

Control: During a tantrum, a child has some control over what they do. Whereas during a meltdown a child is in psychological freefall and has lost all control due to being overwhelmed with distress.

Recklessness: During a tantrum, a child still has a sense of what the limits are, they will not hurt themselves for instance. During a meltdown there are no boundaries; they have lost all control and may hurt themselves or those around them.

Resolution: A tantrum is aimed at getting something they want, if they are given this then the tantrum will generally stop. Whereas with a meltdown, even if the child gets what they originally wanted, the meltdown will continue as they typically need time to calm down gradually.

Stages of a Meltdown

After something has caused the individual distress, there are three main stages of the meltdown. Identifying the stage that the individual is currently displaying, determines how to handle the situation to achieve a better outcome:

Build up: During the build-up, the individual's attitude and behaviour begin to change. They may start walking a different pattern, change body posture (including being tense or dropping their head), or change voice tone.

Survival mode: After the build-up, the individual will use skills to try to stop a meltdown from beginning. This is their coping mechanism (flight or fight response) coming into play, where the individual may be more controlling of their environment, or seek sensory input such as repetitive actions, pacing, jumping or falling to the ground.

Meltdown: During a meltdown, the individual has lost all control of their behaviours and cognitive functions. They are in panic mode and may lash out at people uncontrollably in an attempt to calm themselves. Once in a meltdown, it is too late for most strategies, and it needs to run its course.

Causes/Triggers and Preventions of Meltdowns

Even though a meltdown doesn’t need a reason to continue, there is a trigger that has caused the individual to lose all control. If the individual is in the build-up or survival mode stages then with a little prior knowledge and work, a meltdown is preventable. It is important to make attempts to prevent a meltdown from beginning in the first place. To do this successfully, it’s necessary to be aware and limit any causes/triggers that may set the meltdown in motion. Limiting these causes/triggers is the most important aspect in preventing a meltdown.

Sensory overload: Many individuals who have sensory issues such as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can be hypersensitive (over-responsive) or hyposensitive (under-responsive) to one of the seven senses (touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell, movement, body awareness). If they get too much stimulation at once, they may panic which can cause an overload resulting in a meltdown.

If their hearing is hypersensitive than it may be a good suggestion to bring calming music and headphones for use in loud places such as shopping centres. Calming music helps to relax them, while headphones will help to block out the loud noises.

See our Sensory Processing Disorder Blog for more information.

Cognitive overload: If the individual has a learning difficulty, taking on too much information or information which is complex can cause cognitive overload resulting in a meltdown.

Having patience and regular breaks while teaching an individual with learning difficulties will help prevent cognitive overload. It is important to carefully watch if they are becoming frustrated or are troubled with learning something new. If they are, then allow a small break or move onto a new topic.

Emotional overload: Individuals that have problems understanding and managing their feelings, such as teenagers struggling with their heightened emotions, may have a meltdown once their emotions are too much to handle.

Talking with the individual, letting them know and understand that they are loved, can help in preventing emotional overload. Sometimes if they are in distress, giving them a small hug or some space (depending on the individual), is very helpful.

Demands: Too many demands, or instructions that are too complex, may cause a meltdown. Demands may include those in the workforce, or even just simple chores to be completed around the house.

A useful approach is to set chores in the house and to help them until they have the ability to complete them alone. Also, don’t give them too much to do at one time. These approaches can help prevent a meltdown while getting them to complete needed instructions and demands.

Unpredictability: Some individuals live their lives to a set routine, and when this routine is changed without them having time to be prepared accordingly, a meltdown can result. It can be a simple non-drastic change that causes overload.

It is important to allow them to stick to their routine and when it is necessary to break their routine, give them prior knowledge and a chance to prepare for the new routine. This will help in preventing a meltdown.

Defusing a meltdown
Being prepared for a meltdown is vital for helping an individual who is in the middle of their
meltdown. Once the individual is in a full-blown meltdown, it is necessary to let it run its course. This can be done by making sure they are safe, by removing them from areas where they can be harmed or cause harm to others. Finding a quiet place where they can have time to calm down.

It is impossible to reason with someone during a meltdown, and it is best to watch them in silence to avoid the possibility of more sensory overload. The response to an intervention, such as being held, depends on the individual. They may respond positively or lash out due to the added sensory input.

Meltdowns are very frequent in public places due to the loud noises, a lot of people and constant activity. If a meltdown does occur, it is important to do your best for the person in the middle of a meltdown. Ignore the nasty looks and comments and concentrate on the job at hand, this will help your mental state as a carer/parent.

If meltdowns are becoming more frequent and the individual is too big to handle, it may be important to contact social services to ask for help. These are trained professionals who can assist in reducing your stress by caring for your child.

JettProof Assisting with Meltdowns

JettProof provides the perfect dose of sensory input to help calm, soothe and support self-
regulation. JettProof provides proprioceptive input which is organising and regulating the nervous system. JettProof also aids in filtering sensory information to improve the ability to listen, learn, and helps with body awareness.

Children don’t build resistance to JettProof clothing (best results are achieved by wearing JettProof clothing and undergarments all day, every day), whereas they can only wear weighted clothing for a limited time each day. Reassuring, gentle pressure gives proprioceptive feedback (information received from muscles and tendons, concerning body movement and position).

JettProof is a popular choice for Occupational Therapists’ clients because JettProof provides calming gentle sensory compression all day, every day. With the added gentle pressure, JettProof helps relax individuals, limiting the number of meltdowns. Some people have reported that wearing JettProof gives the feeling of a nice big/warm hug.

The following testimonials help to highlight the importance of JettProof in assisting with minimising meltdowns:

I can’t rate your JettProof vests highly enough. The difference that they have made to my son (nearly 5 years old) has been unbelievable. They’ve minimised meltdowns and calmed and centred him in a way that I wouldn’t have believed before trying them.  

Sarah S

We started using them about 6 months ago after they were recommended by his Occupational Therapist and everyone in close contact with him has commented on the positive difference they’ve made to his mood and behaviour and self-control.  

Mark L

They’ve gone a long way to making a hard situation better. And for that, I can’t thank you enough.                                                                                                     

Erin P