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Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

We often use the words "tantrum" and "meltdown" interchangeably when referring to the loud, intense, emotional outbursts that come from our littles.

While they may look and feel similar, and our reactions may be the same in both scenarios, they functionally are different.

Crying, yelling, stomping, hitting, biting, pushing, ripping, running away, ignoring, throwing, etc. Did I miss any? These are all behaviours we might see from our littles when their emotions are running high.

Before diving in, I want to note that tantrums and meltdowns are a normal, healthy part of child development.


A tantrum is typically a response to a situation and has a purpose. The child is reacting to something - taking a toy away, being denied a request, being asked to do or stop something, transitioning between activities, getting dressed/undressed, etc. It occurs as a direct result of the something and in theory, would stop immediately if the something was not happening anymore (although this is not the correct response from the adults and we will talk more about this in another post!).


A meltdown is an emotional response to being in sensory overdrive. Overstimulation of the senses can trigger hypersensitivity and cause littles to have an intense emotional reaction that looks very similar to a tantrum. Our senses - sight, smell, touch, sound and taste - are constantly working to take in the world around us. For some kids, their baseline capacity (think of a normal day in the life if your kid) to take it all in is higher and for others, it's lower. Just like adults, they can only take so much before it feels like too much. Now imagine throwing them into a new scenario - the zoo, an airport, a birthday party. Not only is it new and exciting, but it is loud, busy, and overwhelming. So many noises, lights, smells and things to take in visually. No wonder kids meltdown at birthday parties! Can you blame them?

So why should I know the difference?

Knowing the difference between these two emotional reactions can allow you to be more proactive as a parent.

If you recognize that your child is having meltdowns in similar situations, you can take steps to manage the situations before they arise.

For example - if your child has difficulty with meltdowns at children's birthday parties, you can try the following:

1. Read books and social stories about birthday parties at random times, not just before or after a party.

This will give your child continuous exposure in a way that is more approachable. When things become part of our prior lived experience and knowledge, we can better handle them. Things like birthday parties have common elements that kids learn to expect. Balloons, lots of kids, presents, cake, songs, etc. Learning these social cues and developing this schema, or prior understanding, helps kids to better prepare for them.

2. Give your child reminders and warnings about upcoming parties.

Instead of springing it on them as a "fun surprise", let your child know that this weekend/tomorrow/this afternoon, we will be going to a birthday party. Let them in on the details (when it is, what to expect, where it will be, who might be there, etc.).

3. Give them strategies for coping.

Prepare them for the overstimulation, but provide them with coping strategies. Be their safe spot. By saying "it might be noisy or loud with so many kids", you are preparing them for feeling overwhelmed. Validate this by saying, "I get it! We all need to step away sometimes. It's totally cool if you want to take a break with me at any point. You come find me and we can hang out together". Let them know that you will be there if they want to step outside, have a quiet moment or just take a break with you.

4. Be present and watch for the signs.

Kids typically show cues long before they explode. Watch for signs of frustration, anger, upset, etc. Offer them a break or something more purposeful, like a drink of water. Check in and pay close attention so you can diffuse the situation before it boils over. We can't always prevent emotional outbursts, but being proactive can certainly help curb the intensity of the outburst.

So what do I do when the emotional outburst happens?

Regardless of whether your child is having a tantrum or a meltdown, your reaction should be relatively similar.

Soon, I will be formally revealing my new method for dealing with tantrums, but since you are already here, I will give you a sneak peek.

The PEACE Method can help really minimize those tantrums and meltdowns.

P - Pause. Whatever you are doing, press pause. If ever there was a time for your undivided attention, now is it. Get down on the level of your child and be in close proximity. Let them know that they have your attention.

E - Emotional Compass. Imagine that you are the emotional compass that your child is following. Your emotions, tone and vibe will become the direction for your toddler to follow. You escalate, they escalate! This is called co-regulation!

A - Acknowledge. Acknowledge their emotion.

Label and validate the emotion(s). Acknowledge any observations about their actions (crying, pushing, biting, etc.).

"I can see you are feeling sad right now. It's okay to cry if you are feeling sad."

C - Clear Boundary. Set and hold a very clear boundary. With a calm, but firm tone, establish and maintain the boundary. Ensure you follow through on the boundary that you set. Avoid inconsistency.

"We will be leaving the park in 5 minutes. It is okay to cry, but it is not okay to hit. I will move you over here to keep you and others safe".

E - Empathize. Understand that little kids having big feelings while lacking a way to communicate them is STRESSFUL. Try to empathize with how they feel and support them through their feelings. Offer comfort items, hugs and your presence, but respect their space and choice to engage on their terms.

"I know you are upset. I am here to support you. I have water and your stuffy if you need it. I'll be right here (close by and within sight) if you need me".

After the storm has calmed, spend some time reconnecting in a positive way with your child. Engage in a quiet, shared activity like a book or a puzzle, take a walk, snuggle or have a snack together. This will help them transition back to whatever the day's schedule was.

My next post will be all about things to avoid during tantrums and meltdowns. Make sure you are subscribed to get updates!

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