Tantrums VS Meltdowns with Young Children

Posted by Melissa Robertson-Bye on

Toddlers and children have such big emotions for being such little people. However have you ever wondered what the difference is between a tantrum and a meltdown? I know that I have miscalled one for the other. We are going to explore the differences between the two and ways that we can help the situation.

Tantrums happen with purpose or because they are looking for a response. They are controlled and your child is aware of their actions. Some children use this as a communication tool when they are not being heard or do not have the words to communicate their feelings. Usually when children are having tantrums it is because they are frustrated and this is away for them to show their frustration.

There are some things we can do to help a child during a tantrum.
  •  We can try to ignore the behavior in hopes that the child will calm down on their own.
  • Remove your own emtions
  • Assess your child's needs (are they hungry, tired, thirsty etc)
  • Diversion or giving them space
  • Acknowledge their behaviour
  • Be clear and firm with your expectations

In our home we try removing our own emotions we don't get upset when Tantrums happen and we stay calm. We assess the needs of our child and seeing what she needs at this time. Sometimes when I see the behaviour changing I'll think about the last time she had something to eat. Sometimes she just needs a hug or her own space in which we guide her to her bedroom and stand in the hallway so she knows we are close by. We will also acknowledge her feelings and use short sentences. We always let her know that when she has done her tantrum she can come and talk. We always talk after her tantrums to find out what made her upset. If we didn't figure it out with her needs. Sometimes it was from saying no to something,we've had tantrums from not being able to put on her shoe or we've also had ones where she doesn't even know why it happened she was just upset. We enjoy having the conversations afterwards because it allows us to let her have ownership for her behavior we never put blame on her but instead listen to her.

Imagine you started a new job. A couple hours into the new job you get up to use the washroom as soon as you stand up you were told no by your boss with no explanation as to why. How would you feel? As adults we are able to understand our feelings and regulate them with one two and three year olds they don't have that capacity yet. This is when tantrums happen it's normal! As much as they suck for us it is a hundred times worse for our little monsters.

I read a quote recently that had me got me thinking "your child is not giving you a hard time your child is having a hard time". It puts the behaviour into a totally different perspective for me. Lilly doesn't purposely have tantrums. She can't control herself so therefore I need to give her the tools to help her cope with these emotions and help self-regulate.


A meltdown is a reaction to something or a sensory overload. All children can have meltdowns some of the signs of a meltdown is your child:

  • being overwhelmed
  • they can become emotional dysregulated
  • they are unaware of their behavior essentially children's brains cannot cope with anything more during a meltdown they are both cognitively and emotionally out of control.
The best thing we can do for them is to make sure that they are safe. Or making sure if the environment they are in is not safe to try to guide them or make the environment safe around them. I remember years ago working with a child in an after-school program who consistently had meltdowns after school. He couldn't cope with any more transitions or structure he needed some him time. The safest spot for him was in my office there wasn't anything for him to break it was contained and there was no other children around that he could hurt. Usually his meltdowns consisted of him throwing things pushing papers on to the floor kicking and hitting the wall screaming. After a few minutes he would stop look at either myself or the educator with him and melt into our arms just wanting a hug. Afterwards he would tidy up the mess he made. He normally apologized for making a mess, he would have a snack and he would go back to the group like nothing happened


One of the big things we have to realize is to not get upset. Yes they are upset but we need to keep our emotions as adults in check. Also not to engage - the more we engage during a meltdown the more upset they become they cannot handle anything else at this current time. Space - allowing them to have space is another great way to help the Meltdown. Now this can be scary for those children that are runners but allowing them to have a little space, and not to chase them can help. Lots of children and people like tight squeezes after a meltdown whether it's a hug a weighted blanket or just squeezing their arm or leg this is only if they want to be touched.

There is no reasoning behind a meltdown other than it's a sensory overload.

Behaviors that overlap between a tantrum and a meltdown are:
  • being misunderstood
  • exhausting
  • both tantrums and meltdowns are a sign of a need or of lack of communication or self-regulation skills.


What does a tantrum and a meltdown look like?

Children can exert different behaviors during either a tantrum or a meltdown these can be anger, sadness, frustration, crying, yelling, kicking, screaming, loss of control, and disrespect


How Can We Help?

Watching for triggers can help guide you into helping your child with Tantrums are meltdowns I know for Lilly after being at a birthday party she will normally have a meltdown there's too much going on she's too overwhelmed by everything that happened. I also know that after a day at school and she asks to watch TV and we say no this will cause a tantrum. She tries to reason with us as to why, she cries will tell us not fair. She's gotten better at self-regulating but she's almost 4. It still happens but it's come a long way her Tantrums used to last 15, 20, 30 minutes sometimes going in spurts of 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 15 minutes 3 minutes, 10 minutes and then ending. We have worked with her a lot on tantrums.

We've started something more recently with her. That is a grounding exercise. Sometimes when she's getting overwhelmed but she can still communicate her feelings we will get her to point out three things that she can see and instead of pointing to them she has to name them then we'll talk about three things that she can touch we make sure that she goes over and touches each of those items. Usually she's calm by the end of this. We could go into sounds and smells and tastes we figure we'll build on it as time goes on so far this is helping when she gets upset and a way for us to curb her tantrums we're giving her skills and abilities to help self regulate.

Now none of these things are going to cure tantrums and meltdowns their children they're going to happen it's part of growing up and part of learning but being prepared as parents and Guardians will help us help them the more we stay calm the easier it will be for us to help.

What are some ways that you help your little monster with tantrums or meltdowns?