Image is a the text of the title on a white square with a yellow/brown textured border. The words 'a tantrum' and 'a meltdown' are similarly coloured and textured to the border.

The difference between a tantrum and a meltdown

by Cas Faulds

You probably clicked on this title because you want to find out the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, so I’ll tell you what I’ve read others say about these differences.

A tantrum is often described as an outburst from a child when they want something, while a meltdown is described as a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. There is a difference, apparently, in the choice to engage in that behaviour: Children may choose to have a tantrum while they don’t
choose to meltdown.

Now, that may be true and the experiences of the child having a tantrum and a child having a meltdown will differ too, but the real reason that I’m writing this is to ask:

Does it really matter whether a child is having a tantrum or a meltdown?

I know that, as a parent of an autistic child, those judging looks and comments from strangers when our children are having a meltdown can hurt. I know that we try to ameliorate that hurt by telling ourselves that we’re being judged unfairly because those strangers aren’t differentiating between a child having a tantrum and a child having a meltdown.

I know that that motivates some parents to create posts and memes to highlight the difference in the hope that educating society will lead to less hurt caused by those judging looks and comments.

But is it worth it? We’re still going to get those looks and comments. Strangers are still going to judge us unfairly. People will still not differentiate between the two because when they see a child behaving in a way that doesn’t conform to the standards of adult behaviour, they judge that child’s parents. Those looks and comments: let it be a reflection of the people who do that rather than a reflection of your own parenting skills or your own
child.

We, as a society, expect children to behave like smaller adults, but they’re not smaller adults. They’re children who are still developing their skills.

We look at children throwing a tantrum and think that they’re willingly trying to be manipulative, and when we do that, we forget that they don’t have the same skillset that we do as adults. Sure, they might be trying to exert control over the situation, but don’t we all want to be comfortable in our environment? As adults, we have the power to control our environment in a way that children do not.

As adults, we have learned, over the years, to express our emotions in more socially appropriate ways. We still feel frustration and disappointment when we can’t do what we want or have what we want or go where we want, but we’re less likely to express that by throwing ourselves on the floor and screaming those feelings out. Our children are still learning those skills.

I’m not attempting to suggest that we should (or even could) fulfil their every desire in order to avoid tantrums. I am suggesting that when a child has a tantrum, we stop looking at their behaviour through the lens of adult expectations, and start providing them with the space to learn the skills that we have learned.

Let’s stop shaming children for throwing tantrums. Let’s stop trying to avoid the judgment of strangers when our children have meltdowns by highlighting the differences between tantrums and meltdowns. We won’t avoid judgment by doing that, but what we do when we do that is maintain the idea that children are simply smaller adults and should behave accordingly.

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