Christine A Howard

Meltdown or Tantrum: 7 Ways To Tell The Difference

Every parent everywhere has been in that dreaded situation where their child has decided for whatever reason to throw themselves on the ground kicking and screaming and looking very much as if they require an exorcism.  And, of course this usually only happens in the most public of places with literally millions of eyes staring us down as we attempt to tame the tiny beasts.  The panic that courses through a parent’s veins at this point is innumerable, and it seems that the room has suddenly decided to shrink and the air is being removed.  We know all too well that how we react is going to make or break the remainder of our day, and every decision we make is being scrutinized by the oh so helpful onlookers providing us with disapproving stares.

It is in this desperate moment that we must determine the answer to one very important question, because how we answer this question determines how we best react.  That question is, “Is this a meltdown or a tantrum?”  However, the answer to this question can be as difficult as answering the “two trains traveling different speeds” math question from when we were kids.  For most of us, our kids are master actors, and can make a tantrum look very convincing.  The next time you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself the following questions to help determine if this is truly a meltdown or simply a good old fashioned tantrum.


1. Is Your Child Trying To Gain Or Avoid Something?

There are two instances when a child will decide to tantrum.  The first is to gain something, such as a toy, a certain brand of cereal, or even attention.  The second is to avoid something, such as doing chores, waiting patiently in the grocery cart, or doing homework.  Generally the child is using a very crude form of communication with the hope it will get them what they want.  If we begin to see a tantrum for what it really is, a very basic form of communication, it is much easier to see through it.

A meltdown, on the other hand, is a complete emotional breakdown.  This child is not trying to gain or avoid anything, they are in true distress.  Maybe the lights are too bright or the room is too loud, but for whatever reason, their nervous system is on overload.  There will be no apparent rhyme or reason for their outburst, and it will appear completely out of the blue.

The best way to determine if this is a tantrum or a meltdown is to look for triggers.  If this trigger is something to be gained or avoided, it is most likely just a tantrum, and should be treated as such.  However, if there is nothing to be gained by the outburst, it probably is a true meltdown.


2.  Does The Episode Stop If No One Is Watching?

A child in a meltdown does not care or even notice who is watching.  Remember, this is not a behavior, this is a nervous system response.  The meltdown will not stop until it has run its course, or until the nervous system has calmed enough to allow the child to collect themselves.  This is when parents can use strategies to relieve the stressors that created the situation.

With the tantrum, the child wants something from you, so if you are not watching, it cannot be effective.  And believe me, they know this.  A child in tantrum mode cannot use this method of communication if there is no one around to communicate with, so you may see the child stop the tantrum only to continue again when they have someone’s attention.  The best thing to do in this situation is to ignore the behavior until it stops, and then provide the child a better means of communication as well as tools to help control big emotions.


3. What Seems To Be The Trigger?

Usually a meltdown is created when a child is struggling with processing a particular stimuli.  This may be environmental or internal, and can very often be difficult to pinpoint.  It may be that the child is having difficulty learning a new skill, and the frustration has reached an unmanageable level, or it could be that the humming from the ceiling fan is so loud to them they cannot cope.  Whatever the reason, the meltdown is generally not caused by a request or not getting their way.

On the other hand, the tantrum is very likely caused by a request the child does not like or because they are not getting what they want.  In other words, the child is frustrated by the situation and does not have a better method of communication.  Again, the best advice in the case is to ignore the behavior, and then offer your child better ways of communication.

Using our story of the grocery store fit, we can attempt to determine what is triggering this behavior.  If you have just told your child “no” to their favorite cereal, only to find them kicking and screaming on the floor, this is probably a tantrum.  But, if your child was sitting quietly one minute, and then the next is on the floor screaming, it very well may be a meltdown.  Maybe your child is holding their hands over their ears, or covering their eyes.  Look for signs that might clue you in to the triggering event.


4. How Long Does It Last?

Children have short attention spans, right?  So if your child’s fit is lasting longer than say 15-20 minutes straight, it probably is not a tantrum.  Meltdowns last longer simply because the child cannot control them.  They have to run their course.  Tantrums, however, are controlled by the child, and will only last as long as the child believes they still have a chance to get what they want.  Not many children are going to exert that much energy over their favorite box of cereal or getting out of making their bed.

5.  Are They Self Harming?

Children are smart.  They know how to get our attention, and they know what makes us uncomfortable.  And, of course they will use this as a strategy to get what they want in a tantrum.  However, they will usually not self harm or try break their own prized possessions just to get their way.  If they are injuring themselves or the things they love, this is not a tantrum, and this should not be ignored.  Help the child calm down and try to make the environment as safe as possible.

If your child is rolling around on the floor in a specific manner so they will not be hurt, you can be assured that what you are seeing is a tantrum.  Ignore the behavior and it is sure to go away.


6. What Will Get Them To Stop?

If you offer your child an ultimatum, and the episode stops, this was a run of the mill tantrum.  Children in a meltdown are not capable of stopping the episode, so if you offer them an ice cream cone if they finish the grocery shopping trip appropriately, they will not stop.  Meltdowns do not respond to behavioral modification or bargaining, whereas tantrums just might, given the right motivator.

7. What Happens After The Episode Is Done?

If your child goes off happily playing five minutes after the fit, this was a tantrum.  Great job for holding your cool, and ignoring it.  However, if the child is visibly tired and remorseful for what just happened, it was very likely a meltdown.  Children do not want to be in a meltdown.  They are uncomfortable and embarrassing for them too.  The best thing to so in this case, is to provide your child with tools to prevent them from happening.  Once you know your child’s triggers, you can help them deal with them or if need be, avoid them.



Parenting can involve a lot of detective work, and that can be exhausting.  Especially when you have minutes to decide if your child is really having a meltdown, or if they are just trying to manipulate you with a tantrum.  The next time you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself these questions to help determine which path to take – ignore or support.

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