The Dirty on Tantrums and Meltdowns

When it comes to children’s behaviour, there’s nothing that gets under our skin more than tantrums. They’re loud, infuriating and can be incredibly embarrassing. It’s so hard to keep our cool when faced with one, especially without solid strategies on hand.

In this blog post I’ll be providing a clear plan for how to handle that next tantrum but first, we need to know if that’s actually what you’re dealing with.


What’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

In my eyes, the point of difference between the two is the driving force behind it. A tantrum is the behaviour of choice for a child who is trying to get something they want, whether it be a piece of chocolate, a ride at the shops or longer playing at the playground. It can look and sound horrendous or be of a more sulky nature, anything goes; foot stamping, kicking, crying, shouting, whinging, that ‘look’, laying down in refusal…you get the picture. To be sure it’s a tantrum, think in your head ‘if I give my child what they want, would this behaviour stop?’. If yes, it falls into the tantrum category. But be aware that the question is for classification purposes only! Grit your teeth, ignore the behaviour and know that it’ll be over shortly.

A meltdown on the other hand is an out of control experience that occurs when a child becomes overloaded. It’s not self-chosen to meet a particular need or to rebel against an imposed boundary. Unlike a tantrum, the child wouldn’t be able to stop if you offered them a beloved toy, activity or food. It’s a whirlwind of anger, panic, or overwhelm, involving movement (aggression or fleeing) and noise (shouting, screaming or ranting). Young children may also wet themselves during a meltdown, indicative of their loss of body control.

How do you handle a tantrum?

This varies depending upon the situation at hand, the degree of the tantrum, the child’s comprehension of language and of cause and effect. Below is what works for me, ready to be scaled up or down depending on each scenario and individual.

  1. Acknowledge the request and state your answer firmly, providing a truthful explanation: “We need to go home now so that we have time to cook the dinner” (say this only once).
  2. If the tantrum is mild, this is an ideal time to offer an alternative or a further prompt. “come on, you can help me to chop the carrots” (a positive or neutral tone of voice is crucial).
  3. Beyond this, remove attention from the child. Any comments, be they positive or negative, will fuel the tantrum. This is not a time to bargain or back down. Stop talking and look away (pretend only if not completely safe).
  4. Wait it out. If you have other children, give them some positive attention, such as a cuddle, kiss or a “thank you for being ready to go home, I really appreciate your help”. If you are by yourself with the tantrum thrower, gaze into the distance and use a mantra to keep your cool; “I am calm and in control, I am calm and in control”.
  5. When the tantrum has finished, forgive and forget but stick to your original plan (don’t undo all of your hard work!). “I’m so pleased that you’re feeling calmer. I know that you’re going to be a great helper in the kitchen when we get home. Let’s count the number of cars we see on our way”.
  6. Later in the day, explain the WHY behind your actions but never in the heat of the moment.


How do you handle a meltdown?

These steps have proven their worth to me time and time again as a parent and as a Preschool Special Education Teacher. Again though, tweak to suit the individual child and scenario.

  1. Remove other children or dangerous objects from the environment.
  2. Tell the child in a firm tone “(name), you are safe. I’m here to help you”.
  3. If desired by the child, use tools to help them calm down (deep pressure massage, held tightly, relaxation music, weighted toy or blanket). It’s OK if nothing is wanted, the bigger the meltdown, the less these tools will be appropriate for this stage. Children do well regulating this for themselves. If they say no or move away, listen and go to step 4.
  4. Wait at a distance. No talking and no stimulation for the child unless sought.
  5. Approach when self calming begins (child becomes more still, crying has stopped or is loosing its charge, he/she can be heard taking deep breaths, heard humming, or seen rocking/flapping). Offer comfort (a rocking cuddle, or deep pressure squeezes down both arms simultaneously from shoulder to wrist). Still no talking.
  6. After the meltdown the child will need reassurance that they are still loved, a drink, sometimes food, sometimes a change of clothes and a rest near you-it’s hungry and exhausting work! Weighted blankets and a relaxation CD are often really beneficial at this time, especially if not tolerated during the meltdown itself.
  7. Be very nurturing and supportive for the rest of the day, while still maintaining normal boundaries. Much smaller triggers will reactivate the meltdown until the next day following a full night’s rest.


A note on self-care

Sometimes when one of my children has a tantrum or a meltdown, I look AND feel as cool as a cucumber. At other times I look the part but am screaming on the inside. And at others still I’m a crumpled heap crying on the floor. It’s crucial to remember that every parent finds this stage of development challenging, even more so if it lasts for several years. You may feel alone going through this within your four walls but the mum next door is or has been where you are now. Take some time for yourself on these wearing days, go for a walk as soon as your partner comes home or put on an episode of Play School while you do a guided meditation. Look after yourself in order to refill that energy tank, giving you the patience to handle the next tantrum or meltdown that comes your way.


Examine the crime scene

We all know that prevention is better than a cure. Tantrums and meltdowns are no different so take the time to examine the crime scene. Were you consistent with your rules and expectations in the lead up? Was there an unexpected change to your routine? Has it been a busier and more exhausting week than normal? Were the sound levels at the shopping centre too overwhelming? Were there enough opportunities for movement and the expending of energy? Have food additives been consumed in abundance? You may well sit back and realise that there was a clear pathway that lead to the tantrum or meltdown. Learn from it and you’re one step closer to preventing the next one.


Final Success Tips: 

  • Be firm and consistent.
  • Use the same strategies when out and about.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no.
  • Learn from the events that lead up to the tantrum.


What’s worked well for your family when it comes to dealing with tantrums and meltdowns?

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