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Is it a tantrum or a meltdown?

Our culture is so fixated on being the “perfect parent” that we forget our goal is to develop healthy, happy children. Parents compare, parents judge, parents are often hopeless and you feel helpless in knowing what to do with the crazy whirling dervishes we call kids. There are no requirements or protocols for parenting, especially when it feels so overwhelming at times and feel that one more tantrum might send you over the edge!

It becomes particularly challenging when your child’s outbursts seem to be more intense, last longer and don't decrease with any parenting intervention.

When you have a “different,” “wired,” challenging” kid, parent judgement can become severe. Parent shaming is nothing new, we all know about it and wish it didn’t happen. Yet, comparing happens, judgement occurs, so we get online and search for what to do when our kids are just too much.

Many parents are unaware of how a child’s ability to calm and not flip out comes from being able to manage their sensory systems. In humans, when our sensory systems aren’t working effectivly, it is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD.) It is the malfunction of our sensory systems that lead to meltdowns, those big epic screaming fits. The general public doesn’t know about SPD and if they do, they think that the only children with SPD are those on the autism spectrum. SPD is highly prevalent in autism but it is also an independent diagnosis in itself. It is also often mistaken as ADHD(also frequently present but not necessarily). In fact, SPD occurs in about 5% of the population. That means 1 in 5 children have sensory challenges and almost all of us have sensory sensitivities. Children with SPD are often misunderstood and are a challenge to typical parenting strategies.

They are seen as “bad kids” that need to be controlled and dominated into appropriate submission because it is believed these behaviors are done by choice. If you’ve interacted with a SPD child then you know that controlling and punishing said behaviors does nothing to change them. SPD is a nervous system disorder where sensory input from their environment and internal systems get received by the body and interpreted by the brain which receives, interprets, then acts upon the information. The problem with SPD is these signals are mixed up, not registered, over registered or a combination of all registrations. This “traffic jam” in the brain leads to a stressful daily environment and challenges family relationships and those in the public domain. When we know our sensory systems exist, we can be more successful in our parenting.

One of the biggest distinguishing factors for parents is knowing what is a behavioral choice versus a sensory meltdown. ALL children can have both.

In the story below, I describe a common incident all parents have experainced and how I used connection as a parenting strategy, so let’s start off by understanding the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. These terms are often used interchangeably however they are VERY different. When we can understand the difference between a child’s behavior as being motivated by want or desire versus a reaction to internal/external input dysfunction, our parenting becomes confident and empowered.

Here is a snapshot I shared on social media to support parents in understanding there are ways to be confident and support your child when they are in a meltdown.

I remember a time in Target, my 4yo was getting squirrely. He wasn't listening and I could see the struggle coming. The difference was, I knew it wasn't choice or him being demanding. I knew he was overwhelmed, I had pushed his limit too far and this "tantrum" coming was my fault. I knew better! He was tired and hungry, and I was trying to get one more task checked off my list. All it took was one more time saying his name, and then the explosion came. The crying, screaming and running. The magic moment for me was knowing this was about his regulation, that he was maxed out in his body and his body couldn’t handle anything anymore. He wasn't choosing this behavior, he didn't like feeling overwhelmed and embarrassed by people watching him. He didn't want to hurt me. He wasn't even thinking anymore. All he knew was his body had become the storm. I knew he needed me. He needed the guiding light back to a calm and safe state. I stopped talking, I held him and sat on the ground. I rocked him and hummed as I took long deep breaths. I was his calm during his emotional storm. I ignored the eyes of strangers, the comments from assuming moms. I focused my energy on being his calm, knowing he needed me inorder to feel grounded again. So I rocked, I smiled at passersby. I sat with my son through the storm, in the middle of Target. He came back slowly, hugging, sniffling, and trying to talk. I hugged him told him "I got you bud." We slowly got back to our cart and made our way out of the store. I learned a lot that day. When I knew what I was doing and the why I needed to do it, I was able to be the parent my child needed. His lighthouse in the storm. We all have the power, just lack the know-how. This is part of my parenting journey with neurodiversity.

Tantrums are a behavioral reaction, a result of a child not getting what they want and often look like they are:

  • Seeking attention or a specific reaction.

  • Demand for something wanted.

  • They are aware of their environment and others.

  • Can end suddenly, because they get what they wanted.

  • Choice, purposeful, an attempt to gain control of something/someone.

Meltdowns are a biological/physiological reaction to being overwhelmed by an internal and/or external input and can look like they:

  • Often come out of nowhere, seem unpredictable

  • Not concerned about what they look like.

  • No demand for anything, no need to be met.

  • Clearly not in control and not aware of their environment or others.

  • Meltdowns often last longer and need more time to fully recover after.

  • Meltdowns are not a choice, they are a biological/physiological response of our nervous system (fight/flight/freeze)

Tantrums respond to a variety of parenting strategies and can be decreased with modifications in a parent’s response to the behavior. Tantrums respond well to calm, consistent, and predictable limit setting by parents. Tantrums decrease over time when the behavior no longer meets the need of getting what they want!

Meltdowns however require patience, understanding, a regulated parent, and time. Remember meltdowns come from an overwhelmed nervous system that is no longer able to receive and interpret input from the external and internal world of the child. This means they can’t hear you or see you, so talking and logic will do you no good, often it will make it worse.

Meltdowns require a regulated(calm) parent, patience of understanding this behavior is not by choice, and time because you aren’t going anywhere for a bit. Children need to be safe when having a meltdown and they need to know there is no judgment from you when they have finally returned to calm. This means sitting calmly nearby using your calm presence, waiting, humming, rocking, soothing them in sound and visually(when they peak at you). Eventually, they will make it to your lap, to feel soothed in your secure arms. This moment for your child is the same as when they were an infant, needing consoling. Your child needs you now just like they needed you then.

Your goal as a parent is to be the calming force to share with your child when they are in distress. Stop and take the time, in the moment, to encourage them to come back to calm, to no longer feel overwhelmed, and be back in their little body. When you are able to be present and be comfortable with strong emotions, your child will trust you to help them feel safe and secure again.

In time you can start to figure out what is overwhelming your child. Are things too loud, too bright, too long, too much of anything can be the instigator of the meltdown.

Remember even as adults if we are tired, hungry, feel alone, or overwhelmed we shut down too! A helpful acronym is H.A.L.T or Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If a human is feeling any of these, it is likely a meltdown will ensue - parent or child.

All children and especially sensory kids, need understanding of these behaviors so that they can learn to calm down, be less overwhelmed and have fun again!

Parents will like to tell you “they know,” your child just needs discipline and better manners. Parent shaming focuses on how the child doesn't “fit” into the mold of societal expectations and “shame on parents for not getting them to follow expectations.” Instead, let’s support each other, learn from each other, and know that not all parenting strategies will work all the time. Sometimes it takes time, a calm regulated grownup, and knowledge that your presence has the power to parent your child the way they need to be parented.

Sensory sensitivities are present in all of us and particularly children who are still developing and integrating their sensory systems. When parents know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown we are attuning to our child, empowered to connect, and confident to act knowing we are parenting the child we have, in front of us, right now.

October is Sensory Processing Disorder Awareness Month. This month there will be several posts on empowering your parenting to support your childs whole wellness, mind, body, and spirit.



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