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Understanding Your Child’s Tantrums and Meltdowns

Every parent has experienced it. Their young child or toddler can’t have the toy they want or that extra cookie they ‘need,’ and chaos ensues. The child is inconsolable, lying on the floor, kicking and crying and screaming. It seems like the episode may never end.

But. of course,  it does. And usually, as the child grows older, these tantrums and meltdowns become less and less frequent. 

Tantrums and meltdowns are a huge challenge for parents. The outbursts are hard to understand and seemingly impossible to prevent.  But knowing what triggers these episodes and learning how to cope with them can make the job of parenting a whole lot easier.  

Is There a Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown? 
Neither a tantrum nor a meltdown has a precise clinical definition. And while many people use these terms interchangeably, there are some distinctions between the two that are important to  know. 

Tantrums, which are more typical for children in their preschool years (0-4), are usually the result of frustration from these youngsters who don’t have the verbal skills or the self-control to check their emotions. As a result they often act out. The good news is a  tantrum is likely to subside if you don’t pay attention to it. 

A meltdown is more serious, and stops when the child wears himself out or a parent is able to calm him down. Meltdowns typically occur when the child becomes completely overwhelmed by a situation in their life. These emotions trigger a temporary loss of control, which can be expressed by shouting and crying as well as with physical reactions, such as hitting. 

Any number of situations can trigger a meltdown, including, fear, pain, and sensory overload. 

What are the underlying  causes of a meltdown?
Children who experience frequent episodes often have trouble with impulse control, problem solving, delaying gratification and communicating their wishes and needs. For many children, these symptoms are the  result of other factors that parents may or may not be aware of. 

ADHD.  An inability to focus and complete work can lead to frustration and ultimately contribute an explosive outbursts. Other learning problems, which might make the child feel  inadequate,  can also lead to meltdowns.

Autism. Children on the autism spectrum  tend to be rigid and  uncomfortable with changes. Add to that, many lack the communication skills to express themselve to their satisfaction. All of these factors can contribute to a meltdown.

Anxiety. Even if your child has not been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, they still may be sensitive to anxiety-inducing situations.

Depression. When children are feeling down, depressed or irritable they are more inclined to have a severe emotional episode. 

Tips to help.

As a parent, you naturally want to do everything in your power to reduce the number of emotional outbursts as well as the severity of each. Here are some strategies you might want to implement if your child is experiencing a meltdown or tantrum.

  • Try to remove the triggers. Find a quiet place, like an empty room or the hallway at school where your child can get away from the visual and auditory stimuli that may have contributed to the episode. 
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Even though your child may be acting in an inappropriate manner, his or her feelings are still real. Recognize that by telling your child you understand, you can relate and you are here for them.
  • Make a connection. Make eye contact. Help them to breathe slowly and calmly. Instead of telling them to ‘calm down,’ help them do it by talking quietly, by listening to them and by giving them a hug.
  • Stay patient. Children who are experiencing an outburst need time to recover. And every child will go at their own pace. Give them all the time they need by showing them the compassion for which they count on you. 

When does your child need professional help?
As children grow up, their self-control usually improves. Most begin to have fewer tantrums by age 3 ½. If your child is causing harm to himself or herself or others or is having more frequent or severe tantrums at the age of four, be sure to consult your pediatrician or a child behavioral and mental health counselor. 

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