Understanding the Difference Between Meltdowns & Tantrums


Tantrums and meltdowns are hard to understand, tough to prevent, and seemingly impossible to handle when they happen.

Meltdowns and tantrums can look alike at first glance, especially when your child is in the middle of one, but the two are actually very different. This is particularly true for children with sensory processing issues, like those with autism, or who lack self-control. Knowing the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown can help you respond in a supportive and meaningful way.

About Tantrums and Meltdowns


A child may have a tantrum when he is trying to get something. A youngster might lash out when he does not get to play a game, for example, or may yell and scream when he wants attention.

While his behavior seems inappropriate, a child has a tantrum for a reason and he has some control over it. He might stop long enough to make sure someone is watching then resume his tantrum once he is the center of attention. Tantrums typically stop when the child gets what he wants or realizes that he will not succeed by acting this way.


A child may have a meltdown if she feels overwhelmed. Meltdowns are usually a result of sensory overload, when there is just too much information for the child’s brain to process. For some children, an amusement park can produce more sensory information, including sights, sounds and smells faster than a child can process it.

For other children, the prospect of making a large number of decisions can cause a meltdown. For these kids, something as simple as trying on new clothes for school or taking a major test can cause a meltdown. Many experts think meltdowns are the result of the “fight or flight” response to danger.

Differences between Tantrums and Meltdown

The main difference between tantrums and meltdowns is that tantrums have a purpose and meltdowns are the result of sensory overload. A tantrum will usually stop when the child gets what he wants, changes his tactics, or when we respond differently to how we usually respond.

A meltdown will usually continue even after she gets what she wants because, in many cases, the child does not even know what she wants. Meltdowns typically end in one of these ways: the child wears herself out, finds a quieter environment with less sensory information, or we respond differently to how we usually respond.

Handling Tantrums and Meltdowns

Tantrums and meltdowns are different, but we suggest you use a similar approach to each. To approach a tantrum, acknowledge your child’s desires without giving in.“I understand that you want more fruit. You may have more after dinner.” Then help him use a more useful form of communication to get what he wants. “When you are done screaming and can talk calmly, tell me what kind of fruit you want for dessert.”

To approach a meltdown, help your child find a quiet place to de-escalate. A calm environment gives your child’s brain a moment to catch up on processing the sensory information. The Son-Rise Program playroom is specifically designed to nurture your child whether they are experiencing a tantrum or a meltdown. Invite your child to a quiet place. Sit quietly with your child and provide only a reassuring presence. The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of information coming at your child.

Almost all children experience tantrums and many children, especially those with sensory processing issues, have meltdowns. Knowing the difference between the two behaviors, and practicing your response to them, can help you kids overcome meltdowns and tantrums.

4 Responses

  1. Lisette Tan says:

    Learned a lot from this info. Didn’t think they were different. Reminded me to give them quiet space after meltdown. And not to give them sermons on what the correct behavior should be. No wonder I always get slapped. 😭

    • Autism Treatment Center of America says:

      We’re so glad this was helpful to you, Lisette, and look forward to hearing how it transforms your relationship with your child.

  2. Rhodora pilapil says:

    This article helps a lot. My, son, khalel 6 yEars old, has ASD, screams and throws things or even hurt himself just to make us turn on the computer, but every time we turn it on, he doesn’t want us to turn it off, and when we turn it off, he would scream, throw things, just to get his way. Now upon reading this i know how to deal with it, my next problem is how to make him understand that turning on and off schedule Of the computer is just fine? So he won’t go on tantrum again?

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