The Difference Between a Temper Tantrum and a Meltdown… and What To Do About Them.

Kids have limited control in their lives. They don’t get to decide when they go out, or where they go. Often, all they can do is protest the things they don’t want to do.  

Throughout childhood, kids are working to master developmental skills. Whether we like it or not, we are all trying to shape (i.e manipulate) our environments. For kids, a temper tantrum can be a powerful tool in making you cut your shopping trip short, or getting the candy they want. When your kids are throwing a temper tantrum, you may see them watching your reaction. (Which is why, if you ignore it, they probably amp it up.)  

So, What Do I Do When My Kid Is Throwing A Temper Tantrum? 

  1. Consider what happened before the temper tantrum. Were the kids getting hungry?  Were they tired?/ It may take some planning and pre-teaching.  
  2. Plan ahead. Bring a snack, or have the kids pick out two toys to take along. When my kids were little, most of the temper tantrums occurred when they couldn’t get what they wanted, so we talked about the expectations beforehand. (“We’re going to the store, but we are not buying any toys today.”)
  3. Use distractions. They could eat their snacks while I shopped or they could look forward to playing with a favorite toy when we finished shopping. I also didn’t go anywhere near the toy aisle when they were with me. The purpose of a temper tantrum is to get me to hurry up, or to provide a toy. By planning ahead, it was possible for me to stop temper tantrums from taking control of our trip.

My Kid Throws Fits That Are Way Worse Than That!

Now, if you are thinking, “That’s not a fit!  My kid screams like they are being murdered, throws things, hits people, scratches their arms, has trouble breathing…” then you may be talking about a meltdown.

Temper tantrums and meltdowns are different. Remember, a temper tantrum is what happens when a kid is trying to shape your behavior. They are trying to get you to leave, to stop doing something, or to give them something they want.  

A meltdown is much different. A meltdown is a body’s way of showing you that it is overwhelmed. A kid having a meltdown probably isn’t aware of who is watching. They are not trying to get you to do anything, most of the time. They are often trying to get rid of the uncomfortable, overwhelming feeling. They may scream, or ugly cry and get all snotty and gross. They might scratch their arms or bang their heads on things.  

Why Are Meltdowns So Different?

The thing is, when a kid is having a meltdown, a different part of their brain is activated. It is actually the amygdala, the part of our brains that control the fight or flight response, that has taken over. Kids who are having a meltdown can be overwhelmed by lots of things. Are they too tired? Are they stressed out? The amygdala can’t tell the difference between these feelings and once fight or flight is set off, it just keeps going.

two kids fighting

Say you’re at the park.There are lots of kids around playing, and your kid child joins a group playing basketball. Some of the kids are older and may be a bit rough, but your child knows that he can walk away if he isn’t having fun. Someone begins to mow the nearby field. 

After a few minutes, one of the kids bumps into your child and accidentally knocks them down.  Your child begins screaming and yelling at the other kids. He goes on and on and you struggle with collecting him and removing him from the basketball court.

So, no one likes getting knocked down, but I’m thinking it’s a sunny day, it’s loud outside, the other kids are a little rough, and your child hasn’t had lunch yet. Getting knocked down probably set off his fight or flight response. That response is just like a reflex, so your kiddo didn’t have a chance to peacefully walk away.  

So, What Am I Supposed to Do About Meltdowns?

Let your child’s amygdala know they are safe. In this case, the less words the better. If you were in legitimate danger, would you stop to have a drink of water? Or to get a snack or a tight squeeze from a loved one? Probably not, so try these ideas first to help the brain realize it’s safe.

If your child is having a meltdown, it’s because their body is overwhelmed and you need to work on stopping the fight or flight response. Typically you can do this by removing some of the overwhelming stimuli.

In the example, above…maybe go for a walk away from the game and the loud mower, or go to a shaded area to have lunch or get a drink. By removing the stimuli (the hot sun, the pushy kids, the hungry feeling) and letting your child know that they are safe (by getting a snack or lunch, walking and cooling off) the meltdown will hopefully be easier to manage.

If you feel like you’ve tried it all and you’re stuck, give me, Jennifer, a call. I help kids and parents with these sorts of struggles all the time.

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