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Sensory Meltdown vs. Tantrum: What’s the Difference? Akron OT Explains

Lots of people think the terms meltdown and tantrum are interchangeable. It’s true they look very much the same when a child is in the midst of one, but the reasons behind them – and how you respond to each – are actually quite different. As an Akron OT (occupational therapist) can explain, knowing the difference between the two can help you react in a way that’s going to best support your child.

What is a Tantrum? 

Tantrums are outbursts that occur when a child is trying to get something they want or need. If you have toddlers or preschoolers, you know temper tantrums are pretty par for the course. However, they tend to taper off as children gain the language necessary to express themselves and the tools needed to self-regulate their emotional responses.

Some children find it’s tough to keep their emotions in check even once they do have the language skills to cope. They get frustrated and angry quickly. They might throw a tantrum if a sibling gets more cereal than they do or if they’re denied a candy bar at the grocery store.

Of course, screaming, yelling and throwing ones’ self on the floor aren’t socially expected or appropriate ways to get what we want, but as an Akron OT or RBT can tell you, the behavior is occurring for a reason. It is serving a functional purpose. Ultimately, the behavior is somehow being reinforced. They have learned that engaging in this behavior has a desired outcome – even if it’s not always a positive one. You may notice some kids will stop in the middle of a tantrum to see if their parent or teacher is looking at them. Tantrums stop either when a child gets what he/she wants OR they are taught that throwing a tantrum will not get them what they want.

What is a Meltdown? 

Meltdowns are different from tantrums because they stem not necessarily for the purpose of a desired outcome, but because of a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. They are very common with children on the autism spectrum when they are receiving too much – or too little – sensory input. Certain textures, sights, sounds, tastes and personal interaction can lead to a kind of sensory overload.

Commotion at a grocery store or the different smells and textures of a non-preferred meal could trigger a meltdown. A sensory meltdown is a reaction of someone who is trying to process too much at once.

Think about it like this: Every person’s tolerance for sensory input is like a pitcher of water. Most of us can control the flow and fill the liquid a little at a time. Those of us with language and emotional coping skills can communicate when the pitcher is getting too full or shut the water off ourselves. A child without these skills – particularly one who is very sensitive to sensory stimuli – may not be able to control the flow before the pitcher gets too full and overflows. This is when one’s “fight or flight” response turns on – and is displayed through running away, yelling, crying or completely shutting down.

How an Akron OT Can Help With Meltdowns

An Akron OT and/or ABA therapist can work with your child to determine the root cause of your child’s outbursts. Is there a function? What is making them feel overwhelmed? We will look carefully at the antecedent (what happens just before the tantrum/meltdown), the behavior (the child’s action) and the consequence (what happens immediately after).

Sometimes, parents reinforce unexpected behaviors without realizing it. For example, if the function of a tantrum is that it allows the child to avoid a non-preferred task, parents may be unintentionally reinforcing that behavior by removing the child from the situation. If a meltdown is set off by sensory overload, we can work on self-regulation, visual schedules and other strategies to give child the tools to better cope.

Sensory meltdowns can sometimes last for hours.

We understand that when you’re child is having a big reaction in a public place, that can be very stressful for you too. But it’s important to understand that often, your child is having a big reaction because it feels like a big problem to them. Acknowledging their feelings is important too.

Ultimately, the best thing long-term is to help children develop self-regulation skills and to practice them yourself. Deep breathing, counting to a certain number and other self-soothing methods can help you respond with both wisdom and patient and reduce the incidence of tantrums and meltdowns.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Akron and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, homeschooling, alternative schooling, virtual therapy and education, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

The 3 Main Differences Between a Sensory Meltdown and a Temper Tantrum, Feb. 12, 2020, By Sa’iyda Shabazz, FamilyEducation.com

More Blog Entries:

What to Look for in a Cleveland Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Dec. 12, 2020, Akron OT Blog

Akron OT

When Should My Child be Self-Feeding? Akron OT Dishes on Mealtime Milestones

  • “My 1-year-old shows zero interest in feeding himself. Is that normal?”
  • “My toddler spills so much cereal every time she tries to feed it to herself. Cleanup is a nightmare.”
  • “My 5-year-old hates using a fork so much, he tosses it onto the floor every time I try to get him to use it.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be time to reach out to an Akron OT (occupational therapist) to decide whether your child’s feeding struggles are typical or if there could be something bigger going on that necessitates a closer look.

Independent eating is an exciting milestone for children as they move from being a fully dependent baby to a functioning little person. They are starting to gain a sense of autonomy and independence. But keep in mind that eating is actually a complex task that requires many different body functions to work in tandem. Kids need to develop/improve fine motor skills, sensory processing skills, strength in their back, arms and hands, oral motor skills, strong reflexes, gross motor skills, attention skills, visual and cognitive skills. There is ample research that shows trouble in any of these areas can affect feeding skills.

Feeding problems can generally be classified as:

  • Structural abnormalities.
  • Neurodevelopmental disabilities.
  • Behavioral disorders.

Sometimes, there is an overlap of issues.

If a child is struggling with self-feeding, an Akron OT from Therapy and Wellness Connection can help determine the source of the trouble and help your child build up his/her skills to become an independent eater.