child tantrum versus meltdownThis is a question I frequently get asked during my workshops: what is the difference between a tantrum and meltdown? Parents & guardians ask me this question- but school staff often struggle to understand the difference too!

According to HADD Ireland (the charity organisation to support those with ADHD & their families)

‘’a tantrum is an outburst that happens when a child is trying to get something he wants or needs. The tantrum stops when he gets what he wants he has some control over his behaviour. However during a meltdown- referred to here as a sensory meltdown- the child feels overwhelmed because he has too much in sensory information to process. The child is unable to control his behaviour.’’

‘Toddler tantrums’

If you are a parent you will likely have dealt with toddler tantrums many times. If you are not a parent you may have seen this scenario in a store. Let’s say a toddler sees a toy that he wants while passing a toy store in a shopping mall. He wants it…..and he wants it NOW! Parent says no. Child starts to cry and keeps asking while pulling the parent back. Parent continues to say no. Child starts screaming and maybe even lying down on the ground and kicking.

So this child has a PURPOSE. He wants the toy and is in control. Once in a while he might stop to look at the parent’s face for signs of giving in! The parent may be mortified by people looking on and buys the toy for the child. The tantrum stops. Victory has prevailed! Or, alternatively, the parent refuses to buy the toy and cajoles the child to keep moving on. The child soon realises ‘’I’m not going to get the toy!’’ He admits defeat! Tantrum over. On to the next shop. So in this case the chid is in control of his behaviour during the tantrum.

Sensory Meltdown

In a true sensory meltdown something has triggered the response and the child goes into a meltdown. This may manifest in a child screaming, crying, kicking or showing other behaviours. The child is beyond reasoning and is ‘out of control’ of his behaviour. In my workshops I describe this as the child ‘’going up & up an escalator and when they fall off the cliff edge this is where you witness the out of control meltdown’’.

What does a sensory meltdown look like?

Tantrums are often associated with toddlers.

However a sensory meltdown can happen at any age and can look quite similar to a tantrum. Some of these manifestations may be (but are certainly not limited to)

  • Screaming/ kicking/ inconsolable crying
  • Lashing out physically and verbally
  • Throwing objects

In my personal experience my own child (who has hypersensitive sensory issues) would often throw items around in her bedroom after a long day-in school. Yes even chairs! Even at the age of 7, 8 and 9; even older. I discovered that she was ‘holding in’ her anguish all-day while at school and having the meltdown for she felt safe with the person she trusted & loved the most- which was with me or her dad. I am really glad to say that she is now a fantastic 13 year old who can regulate herself by recognising her own triggers. She uses this plus some exercises from the BRAINCALM™ program to manage her ‘sensory escalation’ and to catch herself before she goes off the ‘cliff edge’. Once in a while she still needs a little intervention from Mum- this comes in the form of a cuddle and a mug of tea!

Sensory Overload

Let me try to explain sensory overload as simply as I can. During my workshops I ask attendees to close their eyes and focus on their 5 ‘outside the body’ senses which are

  • Sight
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Sound
  • Smell

I also ask them to focus on their 3 ‘inside the body’ senses which are

  • Sensors in muscles and joints
  • balance sensors and
  • sensors on organs such as the stomach bladder and even temperature sensors

I will go into more detail about sensors and sensory overload in other articles, videos and courses.

But for now visualise that you have a ‘’volume button’’ in your brain. Information is constantly and quickly being gathered from the above 8 senses and travel up the billions of little ‘super highways’ to the brain for processing.

Let’s say your brain’s ’’ volume button’’ is turned up too high. The result is that

  • sounds are too loud & may even be painful
  • smells too strong and even nauseating
  • touch is painful
  • And so on with some or all of the other senses.

It is exhausting for the hyper sensitive child or adult to process the overloaded senses. They often describe feeling ‘bombarded’ by a mix of senses. When a highly sensitive brain becomes overwhelmed by the intensity of sensory signals it ends up in sensory overload.

This is where a fight or flight response can kick in to a stressor. Sometimes the stressor may only be going into a classroom or even getting dressed! It may even be something as simple as driving a different route to school. The child becomes dysregulated and he cannot control his behaviour or emotions. The reasoning part of his brain is completely bypassed .The child goes off the ‘’cliff-edge’’ and reacts like you are I might react if a tiger suddenly jumped out in front of us!


Does a sensory meltdown only happen in children?

No, a sensory person- in particular a person who is hyper or over sensitive to sounds, smells, tastes & even feelings, emotions, touch and other sensors can gradually go up the escalator become overwhelmed and exhausted by their sensory overload. They go into a state of fight or flight or ‘sensory meltdown’. It can happen at any age. I often see sensory adults struggle to manage their behaviour & emotions. Being a ‘hypersensitive Mum’ to sensory children, I can really appreciate what overload feels like!

Will a meltdown have a detrimental long term effect on the child?
Generally, no as long as the child is kept safe. However it is important not to yell at the chid and make him feel worse than his ‘out of control’ self already does. A sensory parent (is in a state of overload him or herself) or even a parent who doesn’t know how to handle the situation or who constantly meets a meltdown with yelling and screaming, will get nowhere. Often the child feels bad and the parent feels guilty.

It is really important that the child ‘feels what a state of regulation (control) FEELS like’ by completing a program such as my BRAINCALM™ Program.

Top tips for handling a child in a state of sensory meltdown:

  1. Make sure that the child is safe; remove any objects that could be potentially harmful to the child or to others.
  2. Don’t get angry! Take a huge deep breath, bring your index fingers and thumbs together, close your eyes and say this 3 times. ‘I am calm, I am in control and I’m relaxed. You need to be calm and regulated YOURSELF before you can regulate the child.
  3. Don’t talk to the chid. He cannot hear you. Don’t try to reason with him- he is likely beyond reasoning.
  4. Gently come down to the child’s level and wait for the storm to pass.
  5. Offer a quiet, gentle hug but only if he is ready. If he says sorry acknowledge and accept it.
  6. Take note of any possible triggers which may have started the meltdown. Examples might be bright lights in a supermarkets; ongoing noises such as silverware or clinking cups in a coffee shop. It may possibly be an accumulation of gradual triggers over the previous few hours. Try to keep a note of this information so that over time and with learning you will be able to watch for & catch the child’s triggers and remove triggers (or remove the child from the triggers). as he goes up the escalator and catch him before he falls off the cliff into a full blown meltdown
  7. Always remember this saying- ‘’this too shall pass’’ and it will. Like any storm, the sun will eventually come back out. But prevention of meltdowns- as much as possible- is the best possible outcome. The goal of being able to ‘self regulate’ is the ultimate goal of the BRAINCALM™ program.