Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns

A sensory meltdown is not the same thing as a temper tantrum, and it can be hard to differentiate the two.

Learning about the causes and symptoms of a tantrum vs. a meltdown, can help you know how to best manage them and educate or best handle a situation when others around you don’t.


Too many people “tantrum” and “meltdown” are the same thing. And they can look very similar when you see a child in the middle of having one.

But for kids and teens who have sensory processing issues or who lack self-control, a meltdown is very different from a tantrum. Knowing the differences can help you learn how to respond more effectively and in a way that better supports a child or anyone with a sensory processing disorder.

What is a Tantrum?

Tantrums are when your child has fits of screaming, crying, falling to the floor, stomping their feet, and can last anywhere from 30 seconds to hours. They happen when children feel strong emotions that they just haven't learned how to deal with yet, or if throwing a tantrum has worked for them in the past. 

Yelling, crying or lashing out isn’t an appropriate way for children to express their feelings, but they are doing it for a reason. Reasons a child may have a tantrum is usually out of frustration: They were told no, do not know the words to say what they want, things didn't go the way they want, they are overtired maybe a task was just too difficult.

Children throwing a tantrum usually have some control over their behaviour; A child may even stop in the middle of a tantrum to make sure you’re looking. When they see that you’re watching, the child may pick up where they left off. Usually, a tantrum is likely to stop when a child gets what they want, have a nap, or when they realize they won’t get what they want by acting out.


What is a Sensory Meltdown?

A meltdown is a Neurological reaction to feeling overwhelmed.
For some kids, it happens when there’s too much sensory information to process. The commotion of an amusement park might set them off, for instance. For other kids, it can be a reaction to having too many things to think about. A family road trip to the beach could cause a tantrum that triggers a meltdown.

Here’s one way to think about too much sensory input. Imagine filling a small glass with a bag of milk in a pitcher (and if you’re not Canadian, you’re using a milk jug.) Most of the time, you can control the flow of milk and fill the glass slowly. But sometimes there is an air bubble, the bag will collapse mid-pour, or someone cuts the hole too big.. (NELSON!) and the milk overflows before you can stop the milk from coming out. That’s how a sensory meltdown works.

The noise at the grocery store, a stack of papers for homework, having to try on clothes you don’t like, or maybe you’re on your way to a friends birthday, is all sensory input that floods a child’s brain. Once that happens, experts think your child’s “fight or flight” response kicks in. That excess input overflows in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out or running away A child with sensory processing disorder or autism doesn’t choose to, when, where or why they get overwhelmed. Their brains are wired differently so that they interpret their senses differently than neurotypical people. To some, it is literally painful to endure certain situations.

As a parent and practitioner, I can tell you, planned ignoring works with tantrums. If you’re at home, go to another room and don’t make eye contact or talk. If you’re out and about sometimes its best not to use planned ignoring.. but hey, if that’s what you choose, all the power to you. You might get scowls from strangers, but just ignore them too! Stop, stand with your grocery cart and just wait with planned ignoring until the tantrum stops. A tantrum is only effective if it’s given enough attention to give the child their way, so don’t do it! Be strong out there soldier!

A sensory meltdown, however, doesn’t care about attention. A child in the middle of a sensory meltdown usually has no idea who is paying attention to them, and it isn’t controllable. They can’t control it. A child in the middle of a sensory meltdown can often lose control. If they fall to the floor, they hit it hard. If they hit themselves, it’s truly hurting them. 
A child throwing a tantrum may “throw themselves” to the floor, but if you watch closely they will often catch themselves before they hit the floor and be a bit more gentle. They may hit things around them, but they only with enough force to not do any real harm.

A child will usually stop a tantrum if they are being praised or rewarded for positive behaviour beforehand OR if they get what they want/ need. But a meltdown isn’t likely to stop when a child gets what they want. In fact, they usually don’t know what they want!

Meltdowns tend to end in one of two ways.

  1. Fatigue; A child having a meltdown will wear themselves out.
  2. A change in the amount of sensory input. This can help kids feel less overwhelmed. For example, your child may start to feel calmer when you give one page of homework at a time, shorten instructions or step outside of the grocery store.

So how can you handle tantrums and meltdowns differently?

  •  To tame tantrums, acknowledge what your child needs without giving in. Make it clear that you understand what he’s after. “I see that you want my attention. When your sister is done talking, it’ll be your turn.” Then help him see there’s a more appropriate behaviour that will work. “When you’re done yelling, tell me calmly that you’re ready for my time.”
  • To manage a meltdown, help your child find a safe, quiet place to de-escalate. “Let’s leave the mall and sit in the car for a few minutes.” Then provide a calm, reassuring presence without talking too much to your child. The goal is to reduce the input coming at him.
  • It may also help to get a better idea of the kinds of situations that can be challenging for your child. You can also explore tips on how to deal thru noise and other sensitivities.

Sensory meltdowns are such frustrating part of sensory processing disorder!
As parents, we are always doing our best to support and help our children through them. But it can still be really frustrating when we are out in public and strangers, or even family members don’t fully understand our kiddos, or what is happening. Sometimes their comments and stares really get to us.

 “My kid would never act like that in a store” “This is what’s wrong with this generation” “That kid needs a good smack on the ass”. 

I’m sure you’ve heard something similar. I know, it gets so frustrating and you sometimes just want to scream at them! But, you have to understand.. they simply don’t know anything about sensory meltdowns. Of course, we want to help educate people and advocate for our kids at the same time, but in the moment it can be impossible to find the right words.

That’s why we have created these sensory meltdown awareness cards. These are business card sized cards that help to spread awareness and understanding of sensory meltdowns. You can print some off and keep them in your phone case, wallet, or purse to give out when your child is struggling through a meltdown. Hopefully, they’ll walk away with a better understanding that allows them to be more compassionate the next time they witness a meltdown.

You can also download our Tantrum or Sensory Meltdown Cheat Sheet. This sheet will help remind you each day how to tell the differences between a tantrum and a sensory meltdown.

Click here to learn how to tame Tantrums. (Coming soon)

Being aware of your child’s triggers can help you avoid or defuse a meltdown. It can also help you understand your child better and respond more positively. You can help your child develop coping skills HERE and Learn effective ways to manage a Meltdown HERE. (Coming soon)