close   X

4/19/22 blog post

tantrum or meltdown? what's the difference?

spot the difference and help your child with these tips

toddler tantrum

As a parent it can be difficult to tell the difference between when your child is having a tantrum or if they are in full meltdown mode. Knowing the difference can help you help them!


Tantums occur because a child wants or does not want something. Tantrums usually stop when the child gets what they want. Tantrums are goal directed. The child will demonstrate some control over their body during a tantrum. A tantrum may be accompanied by: 

  • Screaming
  • Crying
  • Angry outbursts  


A meltdown occurs because a child is reacting to overwhelming feelings. There may be a sensory component too. Meltdowns or frequent tantrums that occur throughout the day for 20 minutes or more impact your daily routine. These meltdowns continue regardless if the child gets what they want. Meltdowns are not goal directed, but the child is likely in fight or flight mode and the nervous system cannot process the information to stay regulated. The child is not looking for an audience or attention when experiencing a meltdown. Children may have aggressive behavior during meltdowns such as hitting themselves or others, biting, screaming, and crying. Common sensory triggers that lead to meltdowns may include: 

  • Changes in routine 
  • Unexpected changes in plans  
  • Unexpected sounds, sights, smell, taste or touch  
  • Messy textures or a messy environment  
  • New or different clothes  
  • Non-preferred foods 
  • Busy/loud environments  
  • Grooming activities – brushing hair or teeth, and bathing

four tips to help your child during a meltdown  

  1. You, the caregiver, stay regulated and practice deep breathing – you cannot stop the meltdown.  
  2. Keep your child safe. Provide a tight hug or soft area. If child is aggressive with you, then keep your distance but stay present.  
  3. Model self-regulation techniques – examples: taking deep breaths, counting, squeezing hands together. Do not provide verbal directions to the child during the meltdown.  
  4. Limit talking during a meltdown, or talk in a soft, calm voice. Do not ask questions. You can provide statements like, “I will stay here with you.” or “This is hard, and you can be mad.” and “I love you.”  
  1. Practice deep breathing techniques with your child every day.  
  2. Practice, or role play, alternative behaviors to reduce aggressive behaviors during meltdowns. 
  3. Prepare your child for sensory triggers. Use visual schedules to help with transitions, talk about how loud it might be at the store and what strategies your child can do to help theirself while there.  
  4. Discuss and practice expressing emotions and validate those feelings. You can use words or pictures.  

If you are concerned about your child and think they may need additional help, talk to your primary care provider about an occupational therapy evaluation. For more information about occupational therapy at Dayton Children's click here