Meltdown v. Tantrum

As we have been illustrating this week, tantrums are goal oriented. There is a sense of control, even though they may be in their “emotional brain,” and are genuinely upset. The behavior stops once they get what they want and is short lived. In my experience, children will “glance” at other adults in the room to see if they are being taken seriously and will “turn up the volume” if not. Children are communicative and repeat the desired outcome, for example, “I want a treat.” 

The frustrating thing for special needs parents and parents in general, is that most people equate a meltdown with a tantrum. They expect a parent to maintain a strong opposition to the child, maintain the upper hand, and have the now “disciplined” child go off to sulk quietly. 

Again, a lot of special needs parents are exhausted just from constantly managing other people’s expectations. For many of us, that includes managing our own. Tantrums are not fun. It is important to stand gently firm, be kind, validate, and eventually children will learn that cotton candy at bedtime is not an option.

Let’s turn to meltdowns, which are not goal oriented, but a response to sensory overload. There is a general lack of control. Meltdowns are not a quest for attention and the behavior continues without an audience. They can last a long time. My longest experience was 2 hours, but they can last through the day and night. 

It is important also to remember that even neurotypical children can have a meltdown. I think as parents, we get to know our children and can tell pretty quickly, if not innately which is which. What works to calm your child may not work for others. Some examples might include a low light safe area with soft pillows, a sensory bottle, calming words in a monotone voice, such as “you are safe, you are loved.” Stimming is an effort to self calm, so let them do it. Changing the environment or sensory stimulation may help, but it may be past that point so sometimes they best thing you can do, is to just let it run it’s course. Contradicting their words, getting upset, raising your voice will only make things worse.

Again, only you know what is right for your child. My encouragement to you would be to not take personally advice from family members or friends unless they genuinely understand and have lived through these sensory overstimulating behaviors. Many people show their concern for you by offering advice, and the “what worked for them,” commentary. Try to see that it is coming from a place of love for your situation, though it is easy to become distant and irritated with some well meaning family and friends. Seek connection and support outside of your usual circle and by all means talk about your experiences and vent your frustrations. When you meet other parents who are living through the same kinds of stressors, just knowing you are not alone, that your feelings are heard and not judged can make a huge difference in your own ability to maintain composure and have a strategy for the next time.  

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