Tantrum vs Meltdown: How Your Response Affects Behaviors

Jan 29, 2024By The Autistic Autism Consultant
The Autistic Autism Consultant

To some people, tantrums and meltdowns seem like one and the same. The reality is that they are very different. A tantrum is a behavior that a child has when they want something, but lack the resources to get it. aka They want a sweet treat at the grocery store, but have been told they cannot have it and in protest start to cry. A meltdown is a communication that a child (or adult) has that expresses that they are in a place of overwhelm and no longer in control of themselves. It's a communication that says, I can't do this (whatever "this" is) anymore, please help me. An adult "giving in to a tantrum and giving the child what they want can lead to more tantrums. Conversely, an adult comforting a child and helping them regulate themselves when they are in meltdown will not lead to the child having more meltdowns. Tantrums are about an external want not getting met. Meltdowns are about an internal need not getting met. That in mind, children with autism can definitely have tantrums, as well as meltdowns. It's important to try and assess the environment and situation around the behavior to see if it's about a child wanting something or having lost their ability to regulate themselves due to overwhelm.