Temper tantrums and meltdowns might look the same, but they are very different behaviours.
Here are a few differences that will help you distinguish between the two:
- A temper tantrum is bad behaviour, whereas a meltdown is neurological.
- A temper tantrum is for attention, a meltdown is not. If a child makes eye contact they are having a tantrum and looking for attention from you. If a child does not make eye contact, he or she is not in control of what is happening and is experiencing a meltdown.
- A temper tantrum stops when you give in to the child’s demands, whereas a meltdown does not stop when you comply.
- A temper tantrum will not hurt the child, whereas a meltdown might. A child throwing a tantrum may ‘throw’ themselves to the floor, but if you watch closely, they often catch themselves before they hit the floor too hard. They might also hit themselves or things around them, but they won’t do so with enough force to do any real harm. (Plus, it’s almost always done while watching Mom or Dad for a reaction.) A child in the middle of a sensory meltdown will lose total control. If they fall to the floor, they hit it hard. If they hit themselves, they are causing themselves (or others) real harm.
Can a tantrum trigger a meltdown?
Yes, it can. It is very important to defuse the situation before it gets out of control. Temper tantrums may begin as an attention seeking tool, but can quickly escalate into a meltdown. It is important to know when to ignore bad behaviour (and not give any attention to that bad behaviour), and when to offer an alternative, like a favourite toy or different activity, to calm the mind and prevent a potential meltdown.
Why is this information important?
Because our son has not had one meltdown. Yes, he will kick, scream, fall to the floor and even hit himself, but he will always pay close attention to our reaction. Knowing the difference between a tantrum and an actual meltdown has allowed us to defuse the situation every time. We offer distractions like a favourite toy or activity, or a snack he really enjoys.
On that note, the next time you are in a store and a child is kicking and screaming, please, do not judge. That child could have a disorder like autism, or any one of a number of behavioural problems than cannot be fixed by a time-out or stern warning. Children do not come with instruction manuals, and discipline is not a one-size-fits-all game.
Also consider that the poor mother is probably overwhelmed.