Dr. Kathie Mathis, Psy.D, NCP, CCAC, CBIF, CDVA, CDAC

Parent’s may become exhausted when it comes to their children having tantrums and meltdowns. In fact, many parents get confused between the two.  These behaviors may look similar but are very different. Teens and adults have outbursts as well so learning how to identify each and respond to each is helpful.

So what is a tantrum?  A tantrum is common in young children, toddlers and preschoolers who don’t yet have the language library to express themselves or the self-control to keep emotions under control.  They may yell, cry, pound their hands on a table, stomp their feet or throw themselves on the ground. They are frustrated and/or trying to get a “need” or “want” and behave accordingly. As they develop and grow, these strong emotional reactions will become fewer if taught how to respond appropriately. If a tantrum spirals out of control it can turn into a meltdown.

What is a meltdown?  A meltdown is a reaction to a feeling of being overwhelmed. It is hard to control. Meltdowns happen when children and/or adults get too much information from their senses and the brain is too stimulated by that and overwhelmed – a sensory overload. Researchers think overload sparks a limbic system response of fight-or-flight response (emotional) and it is released in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out, fleeing, shutting down.  Meltdowns can be managed by:  changing or reducing the amount of sensory input one gets or by relaxing, sleeping, meditating, doing yoga, listening to music, and other “resetting the nervous system” activities.

When children have tantrums and meltdowns beyond preschool years, there may be symptoms of underlying problems like extreme anxiety, ADHD, poor impulse control, unable to tolerate boredom, depression, lack of feeling love, and left undiagnosed, can cause problems into later life: i.e., sensory processing skill deficits, problem-solving skills, communication skills, calming themselves down skills, managing their emotions, etc.

  • Impulse control
  • Problem solving
  • Delaying gratification
  • Negotiating
  • Communicating wishes and needs to adults
  • Knowing what’s appropriate or expected in a given situation
  • Self-soothing

Many parents aren’t positive about how to help their children with tantrums and/or meltdowns. It is common for them to give in to what the child wants to stop their behaviors and tantrums. But that response teaches the child that they can get toys by negative behavior, that the behavior’s end result is that they “get” whatever it is they want, which increases the tantrums and meltdowns. Instead parents should look for triggers that cause your child to act out and steer them towards more mature ways to express their feelings.  How is this done?

I like the N.O.T. E. method:

N = Notice – tantrum vs meltdown and what triggered them

O= Open dialogue about what they “need” and are experiencing

T= Teach them how to manage their reactions and emotions

E= Every Day – Every Time (be consistent)




ChildMind Institute

Psychology Today

Child Trauma Academy

Mayo Clinic

Kids Health



Stanford Children’s Health