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What Is the Difference Between a Meltdown and a Tantrum?

Autism or no, understand what you're dealing with when someone is overwhelmed.

Key points

  • Both adults and children can have meltdowns and tantrums.
  • Meltdowns can happen to anyone, not just autistic people.
  • There are some key differences between meltdowns and tantrums, which can help you prevent and care for both.
Ivan Samkov/Pexels
Source: Ivan Samkov/Pexels

How do you tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown? As the autistic parent of an autistic child, I have a unique perspective on this question.

First, a reminder that meltdowns are not exclusive to autistic children. Any child can experience the sensory and emotional overload that may lead to a meltdown, and adults (not just autistic adults) can experience meltdowns as well. Meltdowns simply may happen more often for autistic people, because our autism can make us more susceptible to triggers, and for children, who are less experienced with self-regulation.

So, what is the difference? We’ll break them down piece by piece, first looking at tantrums, then meltdowns – what can cause them, what can keep them going, and what can stop them.

What Is a Tantrum?

A) Triggers – What causes it?

Usually, if a child (or adult – we do this, too) is “throwing a tantrum,” you can pinpoint the main trigger as something that the person wants or needs, which they are not getting.

A classic example is the child in the store who sees something they want, is told they can’t have it, and the child drops to the floor kicking and screaming. For an adult, it may be a parent who wanted to lie down for a few minutes and instead their child has just made a massive mess in the kitchen, so the parent yells and slams doors. In reality, the person having the tantrum is also probably on shaky ground already, perhaps hungry or tired or overstimulated, and so the loss of control about getting the thing they wanted sends them over the edge.

B) Motivation – What keeps it going?

In a tantrum situation, the person may be overwhelmed by the strength of the emotions they are experiencing, and yet they still retain some control.

They won’t bash their head against the floor, and usually won’t cause extreme damage or injury to people or property because they can still see and hear and maintain some awareness of their surroundings and the power of their own body. They may be motivated to continue the tantrum until they get what they originally wanted/needed, or until it becomes abundantly clear that the tantrum is not working.

In short, the person retains control of their own motivation, even if they may need external help shifting that motivation to something more constructive.

C) Resolution – What stops it?

While a person experiencing a tantrum may need help with self-regulation in order to pull themselves out of it, in the end, a tantrum is usually stopped by the exertion of their own willpower.

In the above example, the parent may use self-regulation techniques like taking some deep breaths and reminding themselves of the bigger picture, calm down while cleaning the mess, and then apologize to their child for losing their cool. The child in the store may ultimately realize that their tantrum is getting them nowhere in obtaining the desired item, and so they lose motivation for continuing the tantrum. This may happen even faster if the adult caring for that child can use techniques to help them self-regulate, such as staying calm, redirecting, and using gentle humor.

What Is a Meltdown?

A) Triggers – What causes it?

When it comes to a meltdown, there is very rarely ever just one trigger to identify. Meltdowns are caused by overload — as if the person experiencing the meltdown were a bowl of rice that had slowly gotten too full. The grains of rice will eventually start cascading down and falling out the sides of the bowl, bringing other grains with them which, up until that point, were stable.

An example may be a child who has been looking forward to something all day, only to find out that it is no longer possible. The excitement and anticipation was already a bit much for the child to handle for such a long period, and now piled on with the intense disappointment sends them into emotional overload. They may drop to the floor in the same way the child throwing a tantrum in the store does, kicking and screaming.

B) Motivation – What keeps it going?

When a person — adult or child — is melting down, they have zero control. They have no ulterior motives, no hidden agendas, and no goal associated with the meltdown. They are not trying to get something or make something happen. They have simply lost control.

Because the meltdown is a manifestation of loss of control, the person usually does not retain the same type of control over their motivation or body or senses as someone who is experiencing a tantrum might. I have melted down more than once as both a child and an adult — I cannot tell you what anyone may have said to me when I was in meltdown mode, because I could no longer hear. I could not see, I could not feel the ground beneath me. I would not even have been able to remember my name in that moment. It was as if my brain were literally shutting down input and output pathways in order to protect itself.

The motivation behind a meltdown is not conscious, it is a physical and mental shutdown. A person experiencing a meltdown may inadvertently injure themselves or others, as they do not have control or awareness of their actions and consequences.

C) Resolution – What stops it?

Unlike a tantrum, which can be stopped with self-regulation and willpower, a meltdown cannot be stopped by force of will, either external or internal. Usually, a meltdown will only fade after the triggering overload is lessened — lights dimmed, sounds diminished, feeling safe at home or in a familiar setting, with familiar people or alone, etc.

Sometimes, time is the only resolution for a meltdown, as the body and mind slowly come back to themselves after temporary shutdown.

Think of it like a dam. A broken dam will keep letting water gush through until either all the water pressure is gone, or the dam is repaired. Nobody’s going to stand there and stop the water through sheer force of will. Instead, the brain will temporarily shut down certain nonessential functions in order to divert energy toward repairing the overload, and things like sensory accommodations and familiar surroundings can help quicken this process, much like a temporary barrier could be erected around the hole in the dam while it is being repaired.

The Difference Between Meltdown and Tantrum

To outside onlookers, a tantrum and a meltdown can look very similar. But those who know the person well will have an advantage, in that they may understand the person’s temperament, internal motivations, and triggers.

One of the most important distinctions to keep in mind between the two is that a meltdown is out of the person’s control, driven by physical shutdown, while a tantrum is, to a certain extent, driven by will. A tantrum is slowed with self-regulation, while a meltdown is beyond the ability of the self to regulate. In both cases, the best course of action is to get the person out of the triggering atmosphere or situation and to a safe place, where they won’t be seriously injured or further triggered by their surroundings.

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