Tantrums vs Meltdowns

I see many tantrums in the residential where I work. These tantrums are designed to receive something like a prize or attention or not receive something like a consequence. The children who have tantrums begin to “turn it up” when they are not allowed to have their desired item or thing. They begin to throw things, may become violent, hit, punch, or destroy property. They may taunt others to engage in this behavior with them. This gang mentality is what causes a riot in a school, public venue, or home. They may have been corrected for their negative behaviors or actions. They may have lost privileges or treats. They are acting out to receive attention, stop others from partaking in the outing or actions they are not allowed to participate in. They bring drama into their behaviors and target people who they trust the most or has the authority. They will challenge the rules or try to manipulate the situation. They engage and seem to enjoy making others lose the same activity or outing they have been denied. A child can often stop a tantrum or stop the negative behaviors.

This may be the child who has a tantrum in the store and one they receive the toy or candy stop the behaviors. It may be the preteen who is not allowed to go to the party and destroys her room only to stop when she picks up her favorite item.

Jenny is at the store with her mother. She sees a new doll she wants and begins to ask for the doll. She is told: “Jenny not today” by her mother. Jenny begins to yell and stomp her feet. She continues to act out as her mother walks away. Jenny notices her mother is not paying attention, so she begins to follow her mother demanding “I want that doll!!”. She begins to pull at her mother’s dress. Her mother picks her up and reminds her she is not buying the doll and her behaviors are unacceptable. Jenny begins to hit her mother. This continues until her mother walks out of the store with her screaming and fighting. Once in the car, Jenny stops her tantrum. She understands she will not get the doll and they are going home. This was a tantrum. Most parents or adults have seen a child throwing a tantrum. Many, however, do not understand the difference between tantrums and meltdowns.

Meltdowns are a little different as the child is not acting out due to lack of attention or to receive something they have been denied. Meltdowns are a reaction to something, and the child may not be able to stop the behaviors. They may have a meltdown due to lack of structure, inability to meet expectations, or too much sensory input. This could be a party that lasted to long, exaggerated expectations, expectations they can not meet, or a lack of front loading for a transition- moving from one activity to another quickly.
These children put pressure on themselves to reach the ‘norm’ and they will always fail. They may need extra time to transition from one activity to another, or instructions spoke slowly and clearly, they may need less activity during an outing or event, or more exercise for individual sensory input before the activity.

Dalton is at school and trying to focus on the teacher’s instruction. The boys next to him are distracting and touching him trying to get his attention. He tries hard to focus, on the teacher and his work. He asks for a sensory break and is told to stay in the classroom and focus. He continues to be overwhelmed with the new math assignment, other activities in the room, and the voices of the peers working in his group. The teacher opens the blinds to let the sun in. This new sensory input for Dalton should be comforting; however, it is one more thing to attune to. He feels the heat from the sun and wind as the teacher opens the window. He hears the kids in his group. His seat is hard to sit in as his anxiety begins to grow. He pushes on his pencil and it breaks. He holds his breath as he knows what is going to happen next.

His teacher yells at him. All eyes are on him. Kids are laughing. The teacher only focuses on his pencil. He is accused of doing this intentionally. He begins to explain but is on the verge of a meltdown. He begins to cry. He hates himself because he is crying, yelling, and now no one is listening to him.

He did not try to break it- it just happened. His teacher does not believe him and begins to correct him. He is overwhelmed and continues to yell as he crawls under the desk. At this point, he does not care if the kids are looking at him. Or if his teacher is yelling. He does not hear them trying to coax him out from under the desk. He also does not see the principal come into the classroom. He is rocking back and forth while trying to find a safe place. The principal touches him. fight or flight takes place- he fights back.

He is overwhelmed and can not calm down. Some researcher has reported meltdowns may be related to flight or fight responses in our brains. This idea is easy to test with your child. When you look back over the meltdowns and identify his/her responses to actions before the meltdown what do you see? Does your child run or fight while in a meltdown? Or both?

I know children who will run off to be alone, hid under the desk or a table, they may retreat to a safe zone, or run into a room to be alone. If they are bothered or interrupted while in this mode (flight stage) they may fight while trying to flee the situation.

Some children may destroy a bedroom, rip up pictures, or punch something. When in this place the child is not thinking only reacting.
Flight or fight is a response or basic need response triggered by our brain stem. The person is not thinking at this point. They are not able to think or respond using a higher level or function of their brain. At this point, you can only allow them the time to be alone, feel safe, and work through the meltdown.

It is hard to watch and allow the child the time and space he/she may need. We become embarrassed, angry, frustrated, and exhausted. We want to talk or yell, we want answers, we have questions, and we become enraged when the room is torn up or we get hit.

Once the child calms down, the crisis is over, and their breathing is back to normal. We see an exhausted child who is in need of comfort. We may not be in a place to help this child or comfort him/her. Once the child is breathing slow and normal breath they he/she is ready to process or move on. Now they can access higher levels of brain function- thought processes. Then and only then can you reach the upper levels of their brain including reasoning. While in the meltdown you can not reason with the child. He/she can only access fight or flight.

However, once they reach the higher levels of their brain they will be able to answer or process what has happened with you. Understand they may not give you the answers you desire. They can’t tell you “What started this? What happened? They also can not answer questions like How can we help? What do you need to do next time?”

These are typical questions for the child after a meltdown. The child may not remember what caused the meltdown. Honestly; it may have been a mixture of things, sensory input, disappointment, or expectations not met. All these events or ‘things’ cause the final straw which triggers the meltdown. Anger or frustration toward the child only causes the meltdown to escalate. Demanding them to stop or questioning them again and again also escalates the situation.

There are no easy answers on how to handle a meltdown. One of the simplest ways to help a child is to ask him/her to breathe. Just breath. AT this point we are not asking questions, not reacting, we are just asking quietly for an action our brain can do at any time of conflict- Breath.

Some ideas that may help with meltdowns are Understanding what type of sensory diet your child needs. A sensory diet was a term started by Patricia Wilbarger in 1984 to help explain how certain sensory experiences can improve occupational performance and help to remediate disruption of the sensory processing systems. Which means what type of sensory diet or exercise will help your child be successful during his day? To know this you also need to understand the proprioceptive and vestibular needs of your child.

A sensory diet is a means to adjust sensory input regarding an individual’s needs. It is a daily set of activities or exercises for developing a sensory program your child can use to be successful during his day. My grandson has a routine he does each morning to help focus, decrease meltdowns, and increase productivity.

This could be as simple as
10 minutes each morning to work on a little Occupational Therapy. push or pull exercised, twirling and rolling, or a short game of pick-up sticks to help your child become regulated and focused before school or a busy day.

Scheduling your child’s day is a good idea if you have that option. Exercise before school, a sensory break after a hard subject, outside time, lunch, and a yoga ball seat for quiet time in the classroom. All these ideas are options that can do wonders for the child who struggles with sensory input.

Also, you can dress the child for success so to speak: dry-fit clothing (compression shirt) under their top or hoodie, long socks, boots or heavy high-top shoes, a backpack loaded down, and a thin jacket they can keep on as a weighted vest. No one will have to know why your child is dressed for his/ her success.
Helping your child be successful can be difficult. It does not have to be daunting.

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