Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

It is important as educators to use appropriate terminology whenever possible. One point of confusion for some early childhood specialists revolves around tantrums and meltdowns. While these words are often used interchangeably they actually have very different meanings.

Tantrums are either a manifestation of learned behavior or a result of built up stress. Sensory meltdowns happen when sensory input triggers an uncontrollable neurological response. Tantrums can be “stopped” even at the peak of breakdown because they are not being driven by neurology, whereas sensory meltdowns must run their course and can last several hours.



Manipulative tantrums usually start off innocently and without much deliberate thought. Adults sometimes —unconsciously— contribute to this type of tantrum by being inconsistent with rules, routines or boundaries.

Children learn to push back when our “No” is inconsistent. If whining, persisting or demanding is eventually given in to it reinforces ‘manipulative’ behavior. Manipulative tantrums tend to happen with children who learn to have their wants and needs met through unhealthy behavior.

Having established rules and age appropriate consistent routines in place can prevent manipulative tantrums. It is imperative that the expectations placed on children are within their developmental ability, otherwise frustration will ensue.


Stress tantrums may seem to come out of nowhere. They usually happen when a ‘small incident’ is a combustion point of previously built up stress, overwhelm or neglected emotions.

Tantrums aren’t limited to children… adults have them too! Have you ever had a rough night’s sleep, stressful day at work and nightmarish commute home only to walk in the door and ‘lose it’ with someone you love because you were at your breaking point? That’s what happens for children who have not yet learned how to regulate their emotions and meet their needs in healthy ways.

We can help children avoid stress tantrums by tuning in to the individual child and learning how to read their ‘overwhelm signals’ before the combustion point. Some children have bigger needs than others! Highly Sensitive Children require more support to navigate transitions and may need to be in a helper role to successfully listen. Children with a high activity level must move their bodies before they can sit still to eat or stay focused for story time. When we get to know a child’s unique signals we can often anticipate, change direction and prevent a tantrum before it happens.



Sensory meltdowns happen when children have a ‘sensory overload’ experience. Each child has a different ‘tipping point.’ Children that have sensory meltdowns are wired differently — their central nervous system misinterprets sensory input. Some common sensory triggers include loud flushing or hand-dryers, bright light, yucky smells, itchy clothes/tags/seams, a ‘gross texture’, etc.

Often sensory meltdowns “look” inappropriate or unsubstantiated but it’s because that child is having a stress response. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus gets activated by the stimuli and produces a fight, flight or freezes response in the child.

When the hypothalamus is active the frontal lobe of the brain is deactivated.

This is important, because executive functioning occurs in the frontal lobe of our brain. Executive functioning is what enables us to pay attention, organize thoughts, be flexible and creative in our thinking, stay focused, plan and complete tasks, regulate emotions, and demonstrate self-control.

Another interesting note: The frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to mature and continues to develop into our mid-30’s.



Despite using all of these strategies, tantrums are inevitable. They are expected for 1 to 3 year olds and especially common for children hardwired to be intense and/or sensitive. Children who are struggling with life at home (a new baby, a move, a divorce, a death, a new step-parent, etc.) may be more prone to tantrums as their emotional stress is already heightened.

An effective approach to resolving a tantrum is to calmly say to the child that you can see s/he is upset. Offer to stay close by until s/he feels better if that feels good… with love you can continue to soothe the child… “You feel so sad right now… you won’t feel like this forever… I’ll be right here if you need me.” As you sit with the child, or stay nearby if they prefer, breathe deeply and soothe your own emotional response. When s/he feels better offer a hug if it feels appropriate. Continue encouraging the child to shift their focus towards things that feel better ~ suggest an activity that they’d like to engage in. “Would you like to read a book together? Maybe we should play with play dough now…?”

When a child has a sensory meltdown safety comes first! If possible, remove the offending input. This will not necessarily stop the meltdown. (Here’s the main difference from a tantrum — kids who have tantrums can rebound, kids who have sensory meltdowns cannot.) Try to use as few words as possible. You may want to wait until the child exhibits calm behavior before getting close.

The best thing you can do to help these children learn to develop self-regulation skills is to be a model of healthy self-regulation yourself. Practice your own deep breathing and self-soothing as you help them navigate their tantrums and meltdowns. Realizing that they are legitimately struggling can change the way we interpret their breakdowns so we can respond with wisdom and patience.