Meltdown vs. Tantrum

When your child has thrown themselves on the floor screaming and making an Oscar worthy scene in the middle of the grocery store, what is a Mama to do? Honestly, most days I just want to lay down on the floor and join ‘em.

For parents of children on the spectrum, identifying whether the situation is a tantrum or a meltdown can mean the difference between a fast recovery or an intense and exhausting situation. Why is it so important to identify the difference? Well, knowing which episode our child is experiencing at the time can determine the best manner in which to help them (and ourselves) recover.

According to Managing the Cycle of Meltdown for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, there’s distinct characteristics of meltdowns including triggers, awareness, duration, degree of control, and intervention.

To illustrate, here’s two situations I’ve been in with my son.

1. Simon was playing on his tablet and I gave him a 5 minute notice that we would be getting ready for bed soon. He was alert and responsive at the time. After five minutes I asked him to turn off the tablet and get changed for bed. He started screaming “No” over and over, and then curled up on the floor in defiance. I caught him peeking at me a few times to check my reaction, which I just pretended to not notice. After a minute, I sternly told him it was time to get ready for bed and he eventually came over. Still yelling in protest, but realising bedtime was going to happen anyway.

This was a tantrum. The trigger was an non-preferred activity, but he was in control of his actions. He was aware of himself and checking my reactions and eventually made a decision to cooperate. My role, ignoring his behavior, helped extinguish the tantrum once it was clear his actions weren’t getting him what he wanted.

2. It was out first day back at school after a week home with a cold. After school we stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items. He seemed alert and happy. As we headed down the second aisle, he asked me to pick him up. My hands were full so I said “No” and then he completely lost it. Crying, screaming, and kicking, he eventually threw himself on the floor and continued to yell incoherently. He wasn’t in control of his body, he wasn’t thinking clearly and he wasn’t responding to me or my attempts to calm him down. I sat quietly on the floor next to him, and help my hand under his head to prevent him from banging it into the hard tile. Eventually, he tired himself out and crawled into my lap hugging me tightly.

This was a meltdown. The trigger was probably a few things: just getting over a nasty cold, first day back at school, and then an additional trip before going home where he could decompress. Denying his request to pick him up was the breaking point, but I think anything could have been a breaking point. If he had tripped or sneezed or bumped into something, I’m certain it would have thrown him over the edge just the same.

He was not aware of his body or emotions or me or anything else in his environment. He was overwhelmed and that meltdown release was unavoidable. I’ve learned from past meltdowns with him, that my attempts to help him recover faster only exacerbate the situation. Offering to give him a comfort object, to pick him up, to tell him we’ll go home, basically saying anything seem to just make it worse. My role in the situation is to keep him safe for the duration. Sometimes meltdown can last for 10 minutes, but we’ve also had meltdowns last for 45 minutes to an hour. And I know some moms who have had episodes lasting even longer. Eventually they just tired out and their bodies begin to recover.

Sometimes we can see the triggers adding up and we can avoid meltdowns. Sometimes the triggers are subtle the outburst seems like it came out of nowhere. But the main characteristics are the same – it’s internal, they can’t communicate their needs, and it will eventually end without intervention.

meltdown vs tantrum autism

It’s also important to remember, and I know this is so hard to do in the middle of an episode, but the child isn’t being “bad.” The meltdown wasn’t on purpose, whereas a tantrum can be to provoke a certain response. A meltdown is a total and mostly internal loss of control. It’s a sensory overload.

Meltdowns suck and I try to do everything I can to avoid them, but we can’t possibly know everything going on in their bodies and minds at all times.

Here’s a few things we’ve down to help reduce the frequency and intensity of meltdowns:

Keep an eye out for known triggers. I know that when my son is sick, his whole personality is usually off. He’s crabby and has low frustration tolerance. So I try to avoid running errands on those days since it’s probably too much for him to handle.

Routines are so important and it’s a good idea to discuss changes in advance. ASD kids thrive on routine, but life will eventually find a way to disrupt that. If you can, try to give your child advance notice of the change in routine to allow them time to process. We can’t predict everything, so if changes happen at the last moment, at least us moms can mentally prepare for a possible meltdown.

Have a safety plan in place. My son bangs his head as a form of release. I bought really soft memory foam bath mat at Target and keep one in the living room and one in the bedroom for his “calm down” spots. When he starts a meltdown, I gently pick him up and place him on a mat and sit next to him. The banging usually subsides quicker because of the soft texture and he’ll just rub his face on it for the duration of the episode. When we’re in public, I use my hand or body as a barrier between him and the hard surface he wants to knock into.

Try not to intervene. This is so hard because we see how much pain our child is in and want to do anything and everything to help them feel better. For ASD kids during a meltdown, the more we talk and offer solutions the worse it gets. I know if feels counter-intuitive, but being a quiet and calm support is the very best thing we can do for them. Find your zen and they will pick up on your calmness.

Recovery is for both of you. Meltdowns usually end because of exhaustion. After a long episode, my son ends up falling asleep which is really a great way to recover. Otherwise, providing a calm, quiet place for decompression is the next best thing. And after you’ve used all your energy being a super-zen mom, you’re going to be exhausted too. Take the time you need to zone out, grab a glass of wine, ask your partner or friends or relatives to give you a break. Or just cry it out, because you need the release too.

Most importantly, know that meltdowns are NOT your fault AND NOT your child’s fault. And through each hardship, you are getting to know your child and what they need to cope in new situations. That makes you an amazing parent!

*If you have any concerns about your child’s development, contact your pediatrician, or school district special education department for an evaluation.*

Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.