Skip to Content

Tantrum vs. Meltdown: What’s The Difference

One day, my daughter came to me in tears because her father, my husband, had threatened to remove a newly installed game app from her phone. I decided to investigate the situation and asked them why this was happening and what the game was about.

My daughter hesitated, saying she didn’t want to disclose any information about the game. 

My husband responded, “She refuses to tell me what the game is. It must be something inappropriate, and I will remove it.” 

After my daughter had calmed down, I gently asked her why she couldn’t share any details about the game with us. 

She admitted, “Because it’s embarrassing. It’s a very childish game. I think it’s for younger kids. I like it but don’t want you to laugh at me.”

tantrum vs meltdown girl

The Importance of Attribution

This example demonstrates how parents interpret the intentions behind their children’s behavior can significantly impact their reactions.

Unfortunately, parents tend to assume incorrectly that hostile intentions drive the behavior when there is a lack of information.

This assumption, in turn, leads to adverse reactions toward their children.

Tantrum vs. Meltdown: Is There A Difference?

Some people believe that tantrums and meltdowns are distinct phenomena. 

They argue that children have tantrums when they don’t get what they want, whereas meltdowns result from sensory overload and are often seen in children with autism spectrum disorders.

Additionally, they support the difference by noting the distinct reactions in children: a tantrum typically subsides when the child obtains what they want or changes their approach based on how the adult responds. Those with autistic meltdowns have less control and usually can’t stop until exhausted.

However, there is no clear distinction between tantrums and meltdowns in the medical and psychology fields. Both tantrums and meltdowns describe the same behaviors arising from emotional arousal, such as crying, hitting, kicking, screaming, and angry feelings with a lack of control.

The attempt to differentiate between the two terms inadvertently leads to assigning specific attributions or intentions to them. These attributions greatly influence how parents respond to their children’s emotional outbursts.

Negative Attributions Lead To More Behavior Problems

Research shows that parents who interpret their child’s behavior with hostile attributions are more likely to use harsh and ineffective disciplinary methods. This approach can worsen the situation and result in increased behavioral issues in child​1​.

Moreover, children whose parents frequently exhibit hostile attributions towards them are also prone to developing similar tendencies. When parents consistently assume that their child’s misbehavior stems from malicious intentions, they are more likely to perceive others’ actions as ill-intentioned and respond with increased aggression​2​.

This cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the more a parent attributes their child’s disruptive behaviors ill-intended, the more negatively the child is likely to act over time.

Essentially, negative attributions contribute to negative behavior patterns.

When parents interpret their children’s inappropriate behavior or intentions negatively, their expectations of bad behavior become a reality.

Assumptions of Intent in Meltdowns vs Tantrums

The effort to distinguish between temper tantrums and sensory meltdowns probably stems from good motivations. Some people try to underscore that certain children, such as autistic children, have involuntary responses and explosions of anger due to sensory sensitivities rather than manipulation.

Nonetheless, this classification incidentally characterizes children whose outbursts are not triggered by sensory overload as intending to get their way.

Attempting to label one type of behavior as innocent leads to unfairly categorizing another type of behavior as guilty of manipulation.

Why The “Don’t Get Their Way” Attribution Is Bad

One of the most effective ways to soothe an agitated nervous system is through co-regulation with a nurturing adult​3​

However, when parents feel manipulated, they struggle to stay calm and co-regulate with their children. 

As a result, the purported difference between tantrums and meltdowns unjustly reduces the chances of the child receiving the understanding and support they need to cope with their intense feelings.

Tantrums And Meltdowns On A Spectrum

Both tantrums and meltdowns arise from increased emotional arousal. 

Children experience tantrums when their fight-or-flight response is triggered. The lack of emotion regulation makes it difficult to soothe their nervous system.

The differences between tantrums and meltdowns might be in the arousal level, the measure of control, and how easily they can be resolved. If you look at emotion dysregulation on a continuum, the labels tantrums and meltdowns land on different spots of the spectrum.

Perhaps when a child’s needs are met during a tantrum, their nervous system becomes easier to disengage. Unfortunately, many parents interpret the ease of calming that child as evidence of manipulation, further reinforcing the negative attribution.

Rather than viewing tantrums and meltdowns as distinct behaviors, it is better to consider them part of the same phenomenon – emotional arousal – which varies in intensity and the ease with which it can be soothed.

Considering that emotional outbursts fall on a spectrum, we can be more compassionate to our children’s emotional needs and adopt more effective ways to help them during difficult times​4​.

For more help on calming tantrums, check out this step-by-step guide

Calm the Tantrums ebook

Final Thoughts On Tantrum vs Meltdown

In the end, the label for your child’s emotional dysregulation isn’t what matters most. The priority is knowing how to help them learn to manage their emotions effectively.

By focusing on this goal, you can provide the necessary support, guidance, and tools to help them develop their emotional understanding and healthy coping mechanisms.

For more on how to deal with tantrums, check out How To Deal With 7 Year Old Tantrums

References

  1. 1.
    Snyder J, Cramer A, Afrank J, Patterson GR. The Contributions of Ineffective Discipline and Parental Hostile Attributions of Child Misbehavior to the Development of Conduct Problems at Home and School. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2005:30-41. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.41.1.30
  2. 2.
    Healy SJ, Murray L, Cooper PJ, Hughes C, Halligan SL. A Longitudinal Investigation of Maternal Influences on the Development of Child Hostile Attributions and Aggression. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. Published online November 18, 2013:80-92. doi:10.1080/15374416.2013.850698
  3. 3.
    Lunkenheimer E, Kemp CJ, Lucas-Thompson RG, Cole PM, Albrecht EC. Assessing Biobehavioural Self-Regulation and Coregulation in Early Childhood: The Parent-Child Challenge Task. Inf Child Dev. Published online April 5, 2016:e1965. doi:10.1002/icd.1965
  4. 4.
    Wakschlag LS, Briggs-Gowan MJ, Choi SW, et al. Advancing a Multidimensional, Developmental Spectrum Approach to Preschool Disruptive Behavior. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online January 2014:82-96.e3. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.10.011

    Disclaimer

    * All information on parentingforbrain.com is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *