Photo Credit: Hollis Queen via Flickr

You might have heard someone say their kid “had a meltdown.”  So, what are temper tantrums?  Tantrums and meltdowns are typically used interchangeably, but there are some important differences, especially if the child has a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, such as Asperger’s or Autism.

I’ve noticed over the years that the two terms also carry different underlying meanings.  When we say a child is having a temper tantrum, we might mean that because the child is not getting her way she is yelling, stomping his feet, or refusing to cooperate.  It might imply that a child is selfish or spoiled and lacks the self-control to wait.  I’ve heard some parents refer to a meltdown as a way of saying “a really big temper tantrum.”  I’ve also seen it used to refer to an adult who has lost his temper.

So, what’s the difference?

During a temper tantrum a child is still in control of their behavior and emotions.  While during a meltdown a child has lost the ability to self-regulate his behavior and emotions.  Meltdowns can be very difficult to soothe, depending on the child’s ability to self-regulate. 

Temper tantrums are usually caused when a child is told “no” or is asked to do something they don’t want to do.  The temper tantrum is a protest. While a meltdown might start as a temper tantrum, a meltdown happens when the brain is emotionally and/or physically over stimulated and overwhelmed. The brain and central nervous system are no longer able to coordinate appropriate responses to the environment.

The simplest way to tell the difference between the two is to ask yourself a question:

If I gave in to my child and gave them what they wanted, would the episode suddenly stop? 

If the answer is yes, the child is most likely having a temper tantrum.  If the answer is no, however, this indicates the child is not able to control her emotional responses to the environment.  (By the way, “normal” kids can have meltdowns, too, if they become overwhelmed.)

As a last note, children should be held accountable for their reactions regardless of whether their behavior is the result of a temper tantrum or a meltdown.  However, our reactions as adults should match the situation.  Working on anger management for children is an important part of parenting.  How would you handle a meltdown differently than a temper tantrum?  Let me know in the comments section.  I would really love to hear about your experience as parents.

Nikki Schwartz is a Counselor Resident at Spectrum Psychological in Virginia Beach, VA and focuses on using neurofeedback, play, and talk therapies to provide practical, effective counseling families and children.  Visit her blog at SpectrumPsychological.net.