| Family Reflections |

Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

There’s an important difference between tantrums and meltdowns



ngry loved ones bring tremendous stress to a household.

“Whenever I say no to my nine-year-old, he goes off the rails. He yells, throws things, tells me he hates me, and threatens to kill himself. I find myself saying yes to more things than I want to, just to avoid his fits.”

This mother is describing her child’s tantrum. A tantrum is a fit of temper that is used as a communication tool. If the tantrum could speak, it might say something like: “Change your mind or I’ll make your life miserable.”

Not all fits of rage are tantrums. Some are meltdowns. A meltdown can look exactly like a tantrum, but is actually quite different.

“We were at the amusement park all day. Everyone was hot, exhausted, and starving. My husband used his firm voice to announce we had to leave. We all started heading back to the car. Except my six-year-old, Ephraim. He just rooted his feet in place and started screaming, “Nooo! I didn’t go on the Snake and Shake ride yet. You promised I could go after the ghost house, and we didn’t go! Nooo, you have to take me! You have to take me! You have to take me!”

There were loads of people around, and it was really embarrassing.

Although Ephraim’s irrational behavior was quite similar to that of the nine-year-old we saw above, it was actually a meltdown. If a meltdown could speak, it might say something like: “I have no resources left to deal with any kind of challenge. I’m now imploding, exploding, and otherwise falling apart.”

Meltdowns occur when we have endured more physical and/or emotional stress than our body and mind can handle. We see meltdowns in children, teens, and adults who are hungry, exhausted, overworked, over stressed, or pushed beyond their limits in any way.

“I had an important meeting that morning and I had to be at work early. So of course, that was the morning that my four-year-old woke up with a fever and couldn’t go to school, which would have been okay had my housekeeper showed up but, no, that was the day her aunt got sick and needed to be taken to the hospital, so that meant I had no choice to but to call in to explain that I couldn’t be there. My boss was under a lot of pressure, so although she’s usually very understanding, she gave me quite an earful. I’d worked so hard to get this position, and I felt like everything was falling apart in front of me.

“But that was only the beginning of the day. From there, things got worse. My computer decided not to work, so I couldn’t give my presentation. I just couldn’t believe all this was happening to me. So yes, when my husband called at noon to ask me why I hadn’t picked up his message about making flight arrangements on my lunch hour — yes, I have to admit I completely lost it. I was hysterical. Honestly, I couldn’t take any more.”

Responding to Tantrums and Meltdowns

Tantrums are employed in order to change someone’s mind. If the “someone” in question does change his or her mind, the tantrum-brain-circuit is strengthened. For this reason, it’s really important to not give in to a person who is having a tantrum. When the person is completely calm, acknowledge the upset feelings. Then ask the person (if they’re over the age of three) to express that upset differently in the future. Ask youngsters to practice the better response through role playing in order to start rewiring their brains.

If someone has an occasional meltdown (once every decade for an adult, once a year for a teen, once every four to six months for a school age child, once an hour for a toddler), a bit of support is in order. Some people are more sensitive to stress than others.

With teens and adults, you can discuss lifestyle changes and interventions to help prevent undue pressure and emotional or physical exhaustion.

With kids, you can make those changes and interventions yourself, improving diet and sleep routines, reducing task overload and so on. With toddlers, you can wait for them to grow up a bit!

However, when meltdowns occur frequently, meeting with a doctor and/or a mental health professional will be important. (Except in very young children, regular meltdowns indicate a disorder of some kind.) Intervention is necessary and beneficial for the whole family.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 829)

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