Life with a toddler can be filled with giggles & glee in one moment and tantrums & tears in the next. Let’s look at the difference between tantrums and meltdowns, talk about why toddlers behave this way, and how you can manage these moments.
What’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?
Tantrums and meltdowns may look and sound the same, but there are different motivations / reasons behind them, and understanding that can help you respond.
A tantrum is when a child needs or wants something they’re not getting. They throw a tantrum, yelling or hitting. They may partially lose control, but you may also see them pause a moment to see if they’re getting a reaction from you and then continue. They will stop tantrum-ing when they get what they want, or they realize that the tantrum isn’t working to get them what they want. (Note: Children younger than 18 months are not likely to be socially savvy enough to throw this manipulation style tantrum, so for them this behavior would almost always be a meltdown not a tantrum.)
A meltdown happens when a child is overloaded – there’s too much stimulation or they have too many big feelings, and they get overwhelmed so badly that they lose control and scream and cry. A meltdown won’t stop because you gave them what they wanted. It stops when the child is too worn out to continue, or they find a quieter place with less stimulation and can calm themselves down, or a grown-up helps them to calm down.
Siegel and Bryson talk about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. Bryson says “The upstairs brain… is the more evolved, rational, problem solving brain; whereas, the downstairs brain is more primitive and animal like. When our child is having an upstairs tantrum… they are being intentionally manipulative. They are in control and still make choices. If you give them what they want, they will be plenty happy and go on their way… The best response … is to not give in. … [In] A downstairs tantrum… they are flooded with emotion … like they are losing their mind … they really are not in control. They can’t make a choice anymore, even if you give them what they want, they will continue to lose it. In these moments, what they need most from us is comfort. Now, of course, we are not going to let them knock things off shelves or hurt other people. We may have to hold them and say, “You are not in control right now and I need to help you until you have more control.” In these moments, they need us to calm them down by giving lots of comfort.” (Source)
All children (and adults) can have meltdowns, but they’re especially common with neurodiverse folks, including autistic kids and people with anxiety or sensory processing issues. They’re extremely common for toddlers who just haven’t learned emotional regulation yet.
Triggers: Why do toddlers have tantrums and meltdowns?
Life can be hard for a toddler. They want lots of things they can’t have. And sometimes things happen that make them so sad, or so mad, or so scared that they are completely overwhelmed. Here are some of the reasons toddlers explode:
1. Rules: They want to do something that’s not allowed, and are angry that you’re blocking them. You might think your rule is reasonable, but here’s what they’re thinking: “I really want to hold those scissors! You were just using them. Why can’t I??”
2. Impossibilities: They want something that’s not possible, and can’t understand when you explain. From their perspective: “Last time I asked for crackers you gave me some. Now, you say you don’t have any crackers??”
3. Lack of control, lack of choices about where they go and what they do. “I was having a great time playing, and you suddenly carry me out the door??”
4. Frustration: They want to be able to do something, but they’re not yet capable of it. “YOU can put the puzzle together. But I try and I try, and it doesn’t work!!”
5. Can’t communicate: They want something but don’t have the words to tell you what it is. “When my big sister asks for something she gets it. When I ‘ask’, I don’t!!”
6. Separation and/or unfamiliar situations: Being away from familiar supports is hard. “I count on you for everything, and you’re not here!!”
7. Fears: The world can be a scary place when you’re small and don’t understand much! “That vacuum cleaner is really really loud. I’m afraid it will hurt me!!”
On a good day, when your child is rested and you’re calm, they may be able to handle any of these things. But when they’re tired, hungry, sick, cold, hot, or overstimulated, even little upsets become overwhelming. Or if you’re tired, hungry, or stressed, you may not notice their early cues and they may end up in a meltdown.
Even if you were the perfect parent, and did absolutely everything right, there would still be times when your child would melt down!! But there are some ways that we can reduce the number of tantrums and meltdowns:
- Meet physical needs: Your child is less likely to melt down if he is rested, fed, and comfortable.
- Be aware of your child’s capacity for stimulation: Children all have a different threshold where they overload. Some children are particularly sensitive to noise, others to bright lights, others to crowds. When planning your child’s activities, think about how much they can manage at a time.
- Be aware of triggers: Minimize things you know upset your child. (I am not suggesting you walk on eggshells, trying desperately to never upset your child! But, pick your battles. If something is important to your family or important for their development, then it’s necessary for them to adapt to it. So you do it and you coach them through. But, if it’s not necessary, maybe skip it.)
- Set expectations: Tell them ahead of time what to expect, what behavior you’re expecting of them, and what the consequences will be if they can’t behave that way.
- Give choices where you can. (But don’t offer choices in the middle of their screaming… if it’s a tantrum, giving choices will make them feel like they won; if it’s a meltdown, being asked to make choices is overwhelming!)
- Set limits and follow them consistently: We don’t always give children what they want, and we don’t want them to think they’re the boss of the family. When you set limits, you will face the occasional tantrum, but over time – with consistent enforcement, the child learns and respects the family limits, and will have fewer tantrums than the child who never knows if or when a rule will be enforced.
- Watch for early cues of an impending meltdown: Notice when your child is reaching the end of her rope. Let her know that you’ve noticed – that helps her learn to recognize it for herself. Try distraction or a change of scenery.
- Talk about meltdowns when they’re NOT having one. Ask your child to let you know when they have one coming on. (Note: it will be a while before they’re capable of that!) Praise your child when they’ve done a good job of calming themselves down – we want to reinforce their efforts at self-regulation.
- Talk about and model, positive ways to ask for what they want and to manage feelings. Use Emotion Coaching to build emotional IQ.
Anatomy of a Tantrum – What Research Shows
Researchers developed a “onesie” that parents in the study put on a toddler that would record for several hours, and possibly catch a meltdown. Then they analyzed the pattern of the tantrums. Sad sounds – whimpering and crying – are heard throughout the tantrum; and mixed in were peaks of yelling and screaming – angry sounds. Children tend to build up to a peak of anger quite quickly, then do something physical (throw things, throw themselves on the floor, hit), and then they collapse into sadness.
If parents asked a lot of questions, or tried to verbally reason with the child, it would prolong the tantrum. When a toddler is very angry, he can’t process language, and asking questions just pushes him into overload.
Researchers felt the research-based trick to end a tantrum is to get past the anger. If you think it’s a tantrum, ignore the child or respond with as few words as possible. If you think it’s a meltdown, stay nearby but don’t talk or touch a lot. When the child has released anger, what’s left is sadness, and they will seek comfort.
Taming a Tantrum or Managing a Meltdown
- Don’t “over-respond”. Keep your response calm and low key. You don’t want to pay too much attention to the tantrum as you don’t want to reward the behavior.
- Stay calm. A child in meltdown is overwhelmed by the strength of his own emotions, and needs you to model emotional stability to help re-ground him. Stay close by.
- Don’t ask questions or try to talk the child down with a lot of words. If you need to talk to change your child’s behavior, or move her to a safer / more appropriate place, give very simple commands. If it’s a tantrum, calmly but clearly re-state the rules.
- Don’t let your child hurt herself, or anyone else. Keep her from damaging possessions. At times, you may need to physically restrain her to keep things safe – it’s OK to firmly hold an upset child in a gentle and supportive way. Sometimes she will resist the hold for a bit, then shift from anger to sadness in your arms.
- Once the meltdown blows over, calm and comfort. Name and validate the emotions they were feeling. Let them know that all feelings are OK. (But not all behavior is!)
- Sometimes your child will calm down, but you will still be full of tension and stress from the experience! Think about self-care methods that help you release that tension and move on – a few deep breaths, a drink of water, taking a short break… Get support from other parents.
- For older children (3 – 5 years), talk about the situation later that day when everyone is calm. Validate the emotions they were feeling at the time, but also discuss other ways they could have managed those emotions. Develop plans for how to handle similar situations in the future.
Here’s a handout that summarizes the information in this post: Taming Tantrums
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