The Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown


I’m not a perfect mother. I do my best, but quite often I fall short — like most every other mother who is trying to balance parenting, a career, and every other aspect of adult life. Yet I’m also the parent of a child on the autism spectrum. Some days I forget that, simply because this life is the only one I’ve ever known. I adore my two beautiful, brilliant children who deal daily with the challenges that can accompany being on the autism spectrum. I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, and I’m excited about what they are destined to do in the future. There are days when I don’t realize there is anything different about our challenges than those of any other family.

Today, however, isn’t one of those days.

We all have ideas as to what we plan to do on the weekends. Those plans might include doing chores, like dishes or laundry. They might include going to visit a friend, seeing a movie, going out to dinner, or getting some shopping done.

As for me, I planned on getting some fiction writing done after getting some cleaning out of the way. Things aren’t going as planned.

While cleaning up the kitchen, I heard my daughter Gerri Anne begin to fuss in the next room. She was having trouble with a game she was playing. At first, I thought I’d resolved her problem, so I walked away and continued what I was doing. She started to get upset again, this time crying and swatting at me in frustration.

Now, to the casual observer, this might be considered a tantrum.

It’s not.

It’s the beginning of a meltdown.

A tantrum is often about a child not getting their way. They may be angry about a specific situation. They often know why they are angry and they might choose to deal with it by acting out. A tantrum can often be easily and quickly managed with parental discipline and intervention.

A meltdown is entirely different. Now, I don’t have a PhD, so I’m not going to give you the textbook definition of a meltdown. I’m going to give you my definition as a parent of a child on the spectrum. A meltdown happens when a child with autism spectrum disorder is experiencing an emotion and/or situation they can no longer control or process through their normal means of dealing with the experience.

When a meltdown occurs, a child cannot manage the onslaught of emotions and sensations that come along with it. They might begin to feel frustrated that they can’t fix the situation. Then they may become angry and confused, because in addition to not being able to fix it, they also can’t control the way they feel about it. They can’t calm down, so they may cry. They may scream. They may hit, because they want help, but they can’t verbally express what their exact needs are. They might not know how to ask for help, or they don’t know how to calm themselves down enough to form a cohesive thought so they can ask for that help.

Discipline isn’t going to help in this situation, even though that might be the automatic response of many parents.

In my experience, what can help is getting the child to a place where they can begin to calm down enough to manage all the external and internal stimulation that accompanies a meltdown. I’ve found you need to get them to focus on something other than what started the meltdown in the first place. Some ideas include taking the child to a quiet room, wrapping them up in their favorite blanket, talking to them in a quiet voice, helping them count down from 20 or 10, etc.

I’ve found that a combination of all of these works with Gerri. It’s not enough to simply distract her or remove what started the meltdown in the first place. First, she has to know I’m calm in order to help herself calm down. If I become upset, that only makes things worse.

She needs to focus on something new, so today I spoke to her a in quiet, almost whispered voice. I reassured her I was going to help her, but she had to focus on me. I assured her she has the power to calm down, and I would help her get there. Once she listened to me, I held her and rubbed her back. (Always ask a child if they want to be held. Sometimes the sensation of being touched or pulled toward someone can only makes things worse.) I wiped her tears away and made a little joke in the process. I changed her shirt and told her that wearing her palm tree T-shirt would help her feel better because “palm trees grow in sunny, happy places, and sunny, happy places like sunny, happy faces.” She smiled. I wiped away the rest of her tears. I then told her we were going to count down from 20 and that she had to help me. I said once we reached one, she would blast off in the rocket and would feel better.

I held her, and as we counted down from 20, I began to shake like a rocket. When we got to one, I said, “Blast off!” and she jumped off my lap. I asked her if she felt better, and she said, “Better.”

I’m not an expert. I didn’t learn this through reading a book. Like many parents, I learned this through trial and error. It can be a difficult road, and it’s different for every child. I’ve found you have to be creative. You have to adapt and do so quickly. There are so many techniques and theories out there. You have to experiment and find what works best for your child.

My advice is this:

  • Read what you can, when you can.
  • Educate yourself as much as possible.
  • Get involved in your child’s world if you ever expect them to be able to function in yours.
  • Be patient: Parenting isn’t meant to be easy.
  • But the most important advice of all — love them, because that’s what they need more than anything else: love.

Image via Thinkstock.

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