We’ve all seen it, when our child (or preferably someone else’s child) is having a meltdown. The crying, screaming, uncontrollable physical and emotional outbursts triggered by overwhelm and made worse if the child is tired, hungry, or not feeling good.
Tantrum vs Meltdown
Lots of people use the terms tantrum and meltdown interchangeably. A tantrum is outburst behavior, often triggered by someone not getting their way, that they still have some control over. This type of behavior often comes from a child who wants to be seen and heard and have their needs met. The trouble comes when your child thinks she needs to run into the street or needs to drink out of that puddle that has the rainbow floating on top and you have to tell her no. This can lead to her attempt to get that thing by showing you just how big her feelings are.
A meltdown is different in that there is no control left. And, while a tantrum needs a witness in order to be maintained, a meltdown will happen even if you’re not feeding it with your attention because a meltdown is a physiological loss of control brought on by emotional or sensory overload. A meltdown may look like a tantrum from the outside, but inside your child is unable to hold it together because she is just too overwhelmed. Remember, a tantrum has a goal; a meltdown is a reaction to something.
Anatomy of a Meltdown
When we are not stressed, the area behind our forehead, called the prefrontal cortex, is in charge. This part of the brain helps to regulate responses to stressful conditions. When we are stressed we receive a flood of activating hormones and a part of our brain called the amygdala will disconnect the prefrontal cortex- just doing its job of preparing us for fight or flight. These things make it difficult for us to regulate our behavior.
What to do about a Meltdown
Even though they may look similar, tantrums and meltdowns are handled differently because the underlying causes are different. Depending on the situation a tantrum may be ignored, or you may choose to acknowledge your child’s feelings without giving in to her demands.
A meltdown means your child needs your help to regain control. Start by making sure she is in a safe place and no one can get hurt. Help your child move to a calm safe space. Use a soft voice and reassurance if your child responds well to this. “You’re safe. I’m here with you. It’s okay”. Alternately, just sitting quietly near your child can also be reassuring. During the meltdown is not the time for lectures, teaching, or losing your own control. Allow your child time to recover after a meltdown before trying to talk about it. Once your child is ready, you can guide a brief and matter-of-fact discussion with an action plan for the future and engage in reconnection such as a hug or kind words.
Meltdowns are challenging. Knowing the early warning signs and having a game plan for when they do happen can help.