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Handling a Meltdown

What is a Temper Tantrum?

Temper tantrums are unpleasant, disruptive behaviors or emotional outbursts that children exhibit when frustrated. Children have temper tantrums in response to unmet needs or desires or when they feel a lack of control. Hunger, exhaustion, discomfort, sensory needs, or wanting something they can’t have all trigger tantrums. The behaviors can range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting, being stubborn, resisting tasks or holding one’s breath. A tantrum can be a way for child to get a reaction or get what they want.

What is a Meltdown?

A meltdown is a type of tantrum in which a child is totally overloaded and there is a complete loss of behavioral control. The child is often totally unaware of their environment and doesn’t have any safety awareness. They kick, hit, punch, break things, hurt themselves, or harm others.  Imagine a child rolling on the ground and screaming at Disney World but who is totally unaware of the world around them.  They typically need an adult to support them through the meltdown, and it doesn’t end quickly.

What is the Difference between a Tantrum and Meltdown?

Whether you call it a tantrum or a meltdown, they both refer to when a child has an uncontrollable outburst of anger or frustration. All children have them at some point with the most common ages occurring between age one and age four.  

A tantrum is commonly used to describe milder outbursts during which a child still retains some measure of control over their behavior. Typically, denying something the child wants causes frustration, and the child uses the behavior to get what they want. They often end as suddenly as they start.

A meltdown, however, means a child loses all behavioral control and only stops due to pure physical exhaustion.  Unlike a tantrum, the child will need time to wind down. While meltdowns can occur for unknown reasons, they typically result from being overloaded. Various types of overload include sensory, information, emotional. While a tantrum is about trying to have a need met, a child having a meltdown has no intentions, and instead, a meltdown takes control over them.

Why Do Some Kids Have Meltdowns and Others Don’t?

Self-regulation is the underlying reason why some kids have meltdowns and others don’t. Some kids are inherently better at managing and modulating sensory input, frustrations, and emotions. A stressed brain is a big part of it and that is why calming the brain is so important for future development.

Some children can more easily put words to their emotions and react to stimuli in a healthier way. An some children have biological or neurological issues that make it harder for them to self-regulate.

What is an Emotional Meltdown?

An emotional meltdown occurs when frustration, anxiety, stress, upset, or depression  build up over time leading to an emotional eruption or meltdown.

For children, a single traumatic event can trigger the meltdown but sometimes it comes from an inability to manage their emotions due to biological or neurological issues. Very bright children can also be more prone to emotional meltdowns, as they cognitively understand more than they should but only have normal emotional intelligence to process the information.

Children who experience emotional meltdowns may be irritable, cry, scream easily, or tend to be snappy. Some children overreact to simple requests, are sensitive to stimuli,  display a high level of behaviors, or withdraw easily. Helping them put words to emotions and manage stress is critical in reducing meltdowns.

What is a Sensory Meltdown?

Neurology causes a sensory meltdown making it different from a tantrum. A sensory meltdown happens when there’s too much sensory information to process. Neurodiverse brains are wired differently so that they interpret their senses more uniquely than neurotypical children.

A child with sensory processing issues can be under or over responsive to stimuli leading them to be extremely uncomfortable or even in pain.  A child with sensory processing disorder doesn’t choose to get overwhelmed, but they often are. Their body’s fight or flight system kicks in leading to agitation or discomfort causing a sensory meltdown.

How do I Manage ADHD Meltdowns?

When a child has an attentional disorder, they have difficulties with focus and executive functioning. Their lack of self-regulation impacts their cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional functioning.

Children with ADHD react to stimuli differently making them over or under responsive to stimuli which may be hard for parents to understand or identify. They can be non compliant and often diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)

Just like a neurotypical child who has tantrums, you want to try to identify triggers and then prevent them by being proactive.

How do I Manage Autism Meltdowns?

Children with autism are more sensitive to all information, particularly sensory stimuli, which can lead to tantrums and meltdowns.. Too much or too little sensory stimuli can overload their system causing behavioral or emotional overload.

By formally evaluating sensory needs, parents can be proactive in preventing tantrums and meltdowns by identifying triggers and supporting their child. 

How are Autism and Anger Related to Meltdowns?

Meltdowns come with a total loss of behavioral control. Children with Autism t regulate their brain and body differently from neurotypical children. Sensory, emotional, or social information isn’t computed in the same way overloading their central nervous system.  and making them more prone agitation and anger.

Meltdowns are a physical manifestation of this extreme anger and agitation which is why the child has no awareness, intent to manipulate,, or ability to regulate., This inability to gain control can make children a danger to themselves or others.

What are some Autism Meltdown Strategies?

Reducing overload is the best way to prevent or stop a meltdown in the early stages. Reducing information in general, whether sensory, emotional, or social reduces multiple processing demands.

Setting routines and making things predictable creates reliable expectations for children with Autism, which calms the brain and reduces CNS demands.

If prevention doesn’t work,  you should look for signs of physical tension during the early stages of a meltdown. Is your child clenching their fists, placing his hands over his ears, or scrunching her face? These are physical signs of discomfort that might signal a meltdown is imminent. In which case, you want to reduce information or sensory processing.

The next step is removing the sensory input upsetting them or removing the child from the situation by going to a quiet or preferred place. A safe and secure area is a good idea, as children with Autism often bolt or run away when they are overloaded. Parents can use verbal reassurance with minimal language or visual reminders to calm the child. Another option to help a child during a meltdown is to use social stories to help them understand things. Distracting them or redirecting them to another task or activity can be effective tools to help stop a meltdown before it snowballs.

Once the meltdown reaches the point of no return, your number one goal is safety since every child with Autism reacts differently. Some children bolt, while some kids hurt themselves or others. Other children need the deep pressure of a hold to help the meltdown pass more safely and quickly. For others, a sensory area or a stripped down room is what they need.

Meltdowns are an awful experience for everyone.  Their unpredictable nature means they can happen anywhere. Having your tools and understanding the triggers can help you survive meltdown and, hopefully, reduce them.

Ultimately, when meltdowns become too difficult to manage, seek support.

To learn more about Tantrums read Disarming Tantrums: How to Manage Difficult Behaviors

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. 

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.” 

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

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