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The Difference Between Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns

The Difference Between Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns

June 22, 2018

The Difference Between Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns

It’s an easy assumption to make. A young child starts crying in a busy public space and we often jump to the same conclusion. “They’re just having a tantrum”, it’s just what they do at that age, right? Well, you might be surprised. It might not be a tantrum, but what is referred to as a sensory meltdown.

tantrums sensory meltdown special needs childrenFirst of all; it’s important to note that while they may appear similar, tantrums and sensory meltdowns are very different behaviours. The most important difference being control. A tantrum is usually when a child wants something. They often present themselves as outbursts of frustration. It can be attention based, with children even pausing to check if anyone’s watching.


A sensory meltdown is when a child has too much sensory information to process. Everything we experience throughout the day is sensory information. Noise, smells, and sights are all processed at the same time. That seems obvious but think of it like a computer. Your computer can play a video on its own, no problem, but if you’re playing that video alongside ten more videos, you’re going to see some slow-down. Too much sensory information becomes too much to handle. Then something akin to “fight or flight” kicks in. That response establishes itself as what appears to be a tantrum. The key difference being that a meltdown is involuntary.

Now seeing as tantrums and sensory meltdowns are different behaviours, it makes sense that we should deal with them in different ways.

Tantrums stop for two reasons. When the child gets what they want, or when they’re rewarded for better behaviour. On the other hand, meltdowns end either when the child tires out, or when there is a change in the sensory input.

When your child is experiencing a meltdown, it’s important to remember how your child is feeling. A meltdown is a state of becoming overwhelmed. They’re seeing and hearing everything around them all at once with no filter of separation. If you were drowning, you’d keep kicking and kicking until you reached shallower waters. The principle remains the same. Take your child out of the overwhelming situation; somewhere a little quieter. You’ll want to reassure them with a secure presence without talking too much - you’d be surprised how much just sitting with them can help. Reassure them that they haven’t done anything wrong. The goal is to reduce the amount of information and ease the process so that they can calm down.

Always try to be on the lookout for whether your child is having a tantrum or sensory meltdown. You’ll know the difference by context. It’s a tantrum when the child wants something, a toy, or sweets, or because they want to win a game that they’re losing. When they’re overwhelmed and anxious, it’ll most likely be a meltdown.

Choosing the right strategy in dealing with either is important moving forward. Let us know your sensory meltdown strategies in the comments below, and stay up-to-date with the latest news here.





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