There's A Big Difference Between Tantrums And Meltdowns

There’s A Big Difference Between Tantrums And Meltdowns

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My six-year-old is screaming. He wants to watch TV. He has already watched TV all morning while I was busy with other things. He played his tablet while his brothers did sports. I’m feeling guilty because he had so much screen time. Now he wants more TV time, and he can’t have it. But he’s screaming and throwing himself on the floor in one of his epic meltdowns. He’s been doing this for 15 minutes. I can’t make him stop. We can’t hug our way out. He isn’t hangry, or thirsty, or sleepy, or needing mama cuddles. He’s melting down. He will keep screaming for at least another ten minutes. He can keep this up for an hour.

But tantrums aren’t always just tantrums. They can be a sign of something else, these epic meltdowns. My children are all neurodivergent; they have ADHD. Their tantrums often come from that neurodivergence. And you can’t reason your way out of them, distract them out of it, feed them out of it, talk their way out of it … they need space and grace to process. That may mean getting down on their level and talking softly through the screams. It doesn’t look like discipline. It looks like giving in.

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But they need it.

Here’s another example. My oldest gets what’s called “choice paralysis”: when confronted with too many choices, he simply can’t pick, and he loses it. He has a complete meltdown, sometimes in public, complete with tears and sobbing. He’s a little better now. But this would happen when he was seven. Imagine seeing a seven-year-old screaming in the toy aisle. You’d totally judge me.

You’d really judge me when you see me talking quietly to him and stroking his hair.

But this is a reality for many parents of neurodivergent children.

Tantrums … or meltdowns?

If your child has frequent tantrums, which a study published in Science Daily said was more than five tantrums a day on a regular basis, or tantrums that regularly last longer than 25 minutes, you may be dealing with some kind of neurodivergence. Or perhaps you simply find yourself carrying your child out of everywhereevery time you try to go somewhere. And I mean every time. 

According to Autistic Mama, there are ways to tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown due to autism or sensory processing disorder. First, a tantrum stops when the kid gets what they want (TV, in my son’s case, or a chocolate bar, or whatever); meltdowns don’t.

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She also says tantrums end when you stop paying attention to them — if you ignore them, they go away. When you ignore your kids’ screaming for that candy bar, they stop doing it. My son doesn’t stop screaming for TV if I send him into another room so I don’t have to listen to it. He keeps going even though I can’t hear him (or he thinks I can’t).

Moreover, a kid having a tantrum might throw themselves around, but they won’t actually hurt themselves, she says. The study in Science Daily agrees: if your child hurts themselves or others during a tantrum, they need to be evaluated. You’re dealing with meltdowns at that point.

So how do you deal?

You figure out what works, and you deal. It’s that simple. You learn your child’s triggers, and you avoid them. You learn to see them coming, and you do your best to minimize them. As a mother of special needs children, I know what triggers my kids. If I feed them red food dye, they’ll have meltdowns for days. If my youngest gets too much screen time, he won’t know how to play by himself for two weeks. If my oldest is confronted by a wall of Legos and told to pick, he’ll dissolve. This is how you avoid meltdowns.

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Recently, one of my children was on the verge of a total meltdown. And I know what works for him, and it’s this: I had to kneel down. I had to spell out his choices in a calm, rational voice. “Do you want to feel angry?” No. “Okay, then you can choose to do this. It’s your choice. I know you can make the right choice. You’ve done it before and you can do it again. You’re a good, brave boy, a kind boy, and you can do it. I’ll hold you hand. It’s okay and I know it’s super, super, super hard to do. I’ve had to do stuff like this and it hurts and it’s hard. But you can make this choice.”

He made the right choice, and I rubbed his back and told him how proud I was, what a good boy he was, how brave and strong and wonderful and how hard I knew this was. I emphasized the hardness of the choice and his bravery. I was damn near tears myself at that point, seeing him struggle. I gave him a huge hug. He thanked me for knowing how hard it was and said it helped.

I looked like I just hugged a kid for screaming in someone’s face and being wildly disrespectful. But, well, ADHD. I have derailed total meltdowns this way.

You can’t discipline your way out of meltdowns.

I know how it all looked. I had just cuddled and loved on a kid who had broken the rules and never reprimanded him for it. But you can’t discipline a kid out of their meltdowns. You can’t punish a child with sensory processing disorder for hating loud noises and reacting to them. You can’t punish a child with autism for having autism. You can’t punish my six-year-old for screaming for TV when it’s really our fault for letting him have too much TV in the first place.

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It. Doesn’t. Work.

You can ignore them. You can isolate them. You can spank them if you’re into that sort of thing, which is particularly cruel in this case. The meltdowns will continue, because they aren’t willful; they’re a function, as Autistic Mom says, of neurochemistry. So don’t try. In fact, if your attempts at discipline don’t work, you may need to seek help for your child’s tantrums. 

We’re all doing our best. You don’t know another person’s struggle. That mom running her kid out of Target? Give her an encouraging smile instead of a glare. And when you see me with a screaming seven-year-old in the toy department, don’t assume I’m an ineffective parent, please. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.

And goddammit, so is my son.