Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns: Understanding the difference


Tantrums - aren’t they the bane of every parent? It is not uncommon for children to throw tantrums at times. But how many times is too many? Or how do you determine when things are out of control and you actually need to get your child professional help? Often, sensory meltdowns are mistaken as tantrums, but both behaviors are different and as a result, require different approaches.

These are some of the concerns we would like to address in this blog:

  • What is a tantrum

  • What is a sensory meltdown

  • Difference between tantrums and sensory meltdowns

  • How parents should manage them

What is a tantrum

Tantrums are outbursts of emotions from a child when they are unable to get what they want. They express their helplessness in the form of a tantrum and typically continue it till they get what they want. A tantrum can range from simple to serious. For example, when you take your child for shopping and do not buy what they ask for, they might start crying in anger or say, when a younger sibling gets more attention, they might feel left out and throw a tantrum just to shift the attention towards them.

However, in a worst case scenario, they might run around the room, hit solid furniture or walls or start acting out, till they are noticed and assured that they are going to get what they want.

What is a sensory meltdown

Usually, children with Sensory Processing Disorder have sensory meltdowns. Such meltdowns occur when there is a lot of sensory information for the child to process. They are related to how much load a child’s senses can endure, which is typically very little.

For example, when a child is in a crowded place like a park, shopping mall, cinema theater etc, the sound may be overwhelming, causing a sensory meltdown. Here is an analogy that can help you relate - think about what happens when you water a plant - giving it just the right amount is conducive to its growth, however over watering would cause it to drown and whittle.

How are Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns different?

Now that we’ve established the fact that tantrums and sensory meltdowns are different, it is important to note that both behaviors require different strategies to manage them. When treating a sensory meltdown, keep in mind that each case of meltdown could be related to a different sense and so, should be treated accordingly.

A tantrum has a purpose. They are a way for children to get what they want. If they need a new bicycle or new clothes or just more attention - they might throw a tantrum. But once they get what they want, the behavior typically ends, at least until the next time they decide they want something badly. Tantrums have an end.

You can manage tantrums by assuring your children that you exactly know what they want. It’s important to treat the child with love, rather than enter into a screaming match, which will not help anyone. Inform them in a calm tone, that if they stop shouting, they will get what they want. This will motivate them to switch to good behavior.

Sensory meltdowns, on the other hand, are caused by factors that are out of the child’s control. The child may not even know what he/she wants. But they are unable to deal with or process the avalanche of sensory input hurling towards their mind.

Sensory meltdown can end in two ways

  1. When the child is tired and wears out due to weakness

  2. When their surroundings are taken care of - you can control noise or remove him from a crowded place. As soon as you start to feel that your child may have a sensory meltdown, take him to a location where he can be comfortable

Please do note that sometimes even talking too much in an effort to calm them down might infact, exacerbate the situation and amplify the severity of the meltdown.

If your child is experiencing sensory meltdowns, please do not hesitate to seek help. Still have questions? We are happy to answer any queries you may have in comments below.

#SensoryMeltdowns #Tantrums

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