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  • Is Your Toddler Having a Tantrum or Meltdown? (Yes, There's a Difference!)

    Meltdowns and tantrums are not the same things.
    by Rachel Perez .
Is Your Toddler Having a Tantrum or Meltdown? (Yes, There's a Difference!)
  • Tantrums and meltdowns are not one and the same. But both are emotional outbursts that are a result of a toddler's inability to express what they are feeling to their parents or caregivers. For sure, both behaviors can surely test a parent's patience.

    To get a handle and deal with either a tantrum or a meltdown, parents must identify first which one it is because each warrants a targeted and specific response. It's never easy to figure this out especially when it's happening in public, but it's a necessary step.

    A psychology associate professor and Understood.org, a non-profit umbrella organization that provides support for parents of kids with learning and attention issues, helps us differentiate the two.

    Throwing a tantrum is a child's way of acting out to get what he wants

    Kids throw a tantrum as "a tactic to try and see if that will work to get what he or she wants," defines Amori Mikami, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, for Today's Parent.


    Throwing a tantrum is a 2-year-old's way of expressing his anger and frustration about not getting what he wants or testing the limits and boundaries his parents have set. It could be as trivial as not getting the color of the tumbler he wanted, not being allowed to stay a few more minutes at the playground, or not getting the toy he wanted. It's akin to a, er, manipulation tactic among toddlers who somehow understand now that whining or crying can get them what they want.

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    Your little tot might yell, cry, lash out, or hold his breath, but he has total control of his behavior and may even adjust it after how other people react to his antics. It usually stops when the child gets what he wants or when he realizes that he won't get what he wants by acting out. Some experts believe ignoring a child who's throwing a fit is one of the best ways to put a stop to a tantrum (though we know doesn't always work). The most important thing when your child is throwing a fit is to make sure he's safe and not endangering himself or other people. (Click here for more tantrum techniques and tactics.)

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    Having a meltdown is your kid's involuntary reaction to being overwhelmed

    In a meltdown, however, "the child has pretty much lost all control at this point and doesn’t even know what they want — or don’t want — anymore. And he or she isn't doing this behavior in any strategic sort of way," Mikami explained.

    A meltdown is a consequence of a child being overwhelmed, whether that's information, emotional, or sensory overload (like in kids with autism). It's often due to intense frustration brought about by sudden changes in routine or expectations, like he finds himself still up way beyond his usual bedtime due to a family get-together. For a child with sensory issues, it's seeing too many lights and hearing all sorts of sounds at the amusement park

    Sure, your toddler might also yell, cry, and lash out as he does in throwing a tantrum, but he could also run away, shut down or withdraw when he's having a meltdown. It only ends when your poor little fellow has exhausted himself or he is taken out of the stressful situation or environment.


    Prevention is better than cure so knowing your child's triggers beforehand and avoiding them is the best course of action. Teaching a child a few self-regulation or self-calming techniques, such as deep breathing or repeating a mantra, when they feel like they're having a meltdown and prevent it from going on full swing.

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    Yes, a tantrum can escalate into a meltdown

    Of course, no one wants a child's tantrum to become a full-blown meltdown, but it can happen and not just to kids with special needs. Amanda Morin, a former teacher and early intervention specialist, has shared warning signs that a tantrum may become a full-blown meltdown.

    "If you can catch them early enough," Morin writes in Understood.org, "you may be able to calm your child down before she becomes out of control." The signs include:

    • Trouble thinking clearly, making decisions, or responding to questions
    • Repeating thoughts or questions over and over
    • Refusing to follow directions or cooperate
    • Trying to shut out sensory input or attempting to run away or hide
    • Increased movements, like fidgeting or pacing
    • Complaining of physical issues like dizziness or heart pounding

    A 2-year-old throwing a tantrum is part of a toddler's socio-emotional development. The next possible thing is to nip your little one's emotional outburst by acknowledging his feelings and teaching him how to manage his emotions.

    "There’s no such thing as tantrum disorder or meltdown disorder," notes child and adolescent psychiatrist Steven Dickstein in Child Mind Institute. "Tantrums and meltdowns are like fevers — they can be triggered by so many different problems that we can’t make them stop until we understand what’s triggering them."

    Sometimes, managing emotions is more difficult in children because of underlying issues such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders and anxieties, and learning issues. If your child is having a meltdown more often, then it might be best to discuss it with his pediatrician so he can refer you to a specialist if needed.

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