What is the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum?

Tantrums and meltdowns appear similar, however, with a tantrum the child will usually want something, for example, a toy or sweets or to win a game. Tantrums are usually goal orientated. A meltdown, however, is due sensory overload.

With a tantrum, a child can feel that they deserve or want something, and that someone is blocking them from getting it. Children who have tantrums have learnt early in life that by using certain behaviours, they are able to get what they want. This is not in the child’s awareness. Parents inadvertently reinforce the behaviours by giving in and giving the child what they want. As a child moves into teenage years, it can become very difficult for a parent to manage these outbursts.

A meltdown is very different, as they happen when a child experiences sensory overload either through their feelings or their surroundings. The child may then feel overwhelmed. A meltdown is not a choice as children have no control over it. Meltdowns can be triggered from clothing, overstimulation, over excited, anger or highly anxious. Parents can feel helpless when their child is having a meltdown as nothing they say or do appears to help.

If your child is prone to tantrums try:

  • To stay calm – Keep your voice low – Try not to get angry.
  • To ignore the behaviour – Use distraction
  • Make it clear to your child that you understand what they want and help them to articulate it in a calmer way. Help your child to see that there is an appropriate way to ask rather than tantrum.
  • Notice what happens leading up to the tantrum
  • Be consistent and reliable in your responses to your child
  • Praise your child when they manage situations and don’t have a tantrum

If your child is prone to meltdowns try to:

  • Become aware of the early signs of a meltdown. Watch for self-soothing behaviours, for example, chewing nails and skin, thumb-sucking, knuckle cracking, biting objects (pens, pencils), sucking on items of clothing.
  • If you can, move your child to a quieter space to help with de-escalation
  • Sit quietly with your child, helping them to decompress
  • Offer a hug or put your hand on their shoulder. This can be soothing for a child. Some children do not want to be touched. Remember, you know your child.
  • Teach your child to self-soothe by saying to themselves “I’m ok”
  • If your child will allow you to wrap a blanket around them. This will help to make them feel secure.
  • Use your child’s senses through music, hand cream, foot cream, rubbing your child’s back and many others.

A relaxation box with sensory fidget toys, cuddle toy, soft materials, hand cream and foot cream can be used when you begin to notice the self-soothing behaviours and when your child has self-regulated.

Children who have autism, ADHD, developmental trauma, sensory integration issues and other neuro developmental differences may have increased tantrums and meltdowns. It is important to remember that your child will be functioning at a lower developmental age.

At the Child Mind Institute Dr Dickstein states: We don’t blame parents for tantrums”, Dr Dickstein says, “because parents are only part of what goes into a child’s behaviour patterns, along with temperament and development. But parent behaviour is adjustable, so it’s the most powerful tool we have for helping children”.


If you are a parent who is struggling with your child or, an adult who has increased anger/anxiety, contact Butterfly Counselling Services. We are based in Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesbrough and have child therapists and adult therapists with immediate availability.