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Tantrums vs Sensory Meltdowns

Tantrums vs Sensory Meltdowns – How they are different and what to do!

Tantrums and sensory meltdowns are often thought of as meaning the same thing. However, while the behaviours during one of these episodes may look and sound similar, the causes are quite different. For children who experience self-control or sensory-processing difficulties a meltdown is significantly different from a temper tantrum. Being aware of the differences will help you respond, and support your child, in a way that will lead to their learning to self-regulate their emotions appropriately.

Children with attention, learning or language difficulties can be prone to tantrums. They can experience great frustration with having to wait for their wants or needs to be met or, they may lack understanding of an explanation being given as to why their needs or wants cannot be met.

What is a Tantrum?

Tantrums are a child’s way of expressing anger and frustration at not receiving something that they have set their minds on having or doing. For example, a child who cannot have a chocolate while grocery shopping throws themselves on the ground screaming and shouting in frustration and anger in spite of being told that afternoon tea isn’t far off; the teenager slamming doors because a sibling is using the family computer when they want to play a game on it. In short, they are trying to manipulate a situation in order to change an outcome that is about their needs or wants.

What is a Sensory Meltdown

Sensory meltdowns, on the other hand, are a result of an inability to effectively process physical sensory experiences into appropriate responses that leaves the child unable to contain their distress and anxiety.

Sensory meltdowns are a result of a child being unable to process and respond to sensory input that leads to intense responses for prolonged periods of time. Our senses help us to function in our environment. They are a finely tuned ‘symphony of sensory processing’ that our nervous system effortlessly turns into appropriate motor and behavioural responses, for example, the temperature drops, my body responds by shivering (motor response) so I put on a jumper (behavioural response) without a lot of conscious thought. Children with sensory processing difficulties, however, experience difficulty processing sensory information into appropriate behaviours/responses which match the intensity of the sensory information (Miller, 2006). Their responses to stimuli is more intense and the response occurs for longer periods.

Why do children have sensory meltdowns?

Children with sensory processing issues can be particularly sensitive to the sounds around them such as sound effects at a movie that may be startling leaving them agitated for quite some time during and after the experience. Strong smells and some types of artificial lighting can also cause overwhelmingly intense sensations that lead to a long period of discomfort. The sensation of labels and seams on clothes rubbing/ scratching on skin causes distress leaving the child unable to relax. They can easily become overloaded and their ability to control their emotional responses rapidly diminishes.

How can I respond to my child’s tantrums?

First – Label and acknowledge the feelings your child is experiencing, “I can see that you are very angry and frustrated about this.”

Second – Deal with the unexpected behaviour “You need to stop …. (shouting, hitting)”. If the behaviour continues keep repeating exactly the same instruction calmly. When he has calmed down then express that these behaviours are unexpected even when we are frustrated and angry.

Third – Help the child problem solve expected ways to get what he wants or needs in the future. Decide on and rehearse a calming down strategy for when he feels himself getting angry and frustrated, for example, slow breathing, squeezing a foam ball in his hand.

The child’s reaction to not getting what he wanted is quite large and can be a scary experience for him to feel such significant emotions of anger and frustration. Having said this, it is unexpected for someone to hurt others no matter how big the feelings are. Children with attention, learning and language issues who experience problems with self-regulation need to be explicitly taught social skills to know when their emotions are escalating and how to calm themselves.

How can I support my child experiencing a meltdown?

What we say during a meltdown needs to be supportive using limited speech. Giving short, calm, directive instructions can remind an anxious child of a rehearsed strategy, for example, “Remember – Strawberries (or favourite fruit) and Candles”. This simple cue may help to remind the child to take deep breaths and blow hard enough to blow out a candle flame. Using a calming strategy may momentarily distract them from the sensory input while finding a quiet place in which to recover.

Children with sensory-processing difficulties require social skills programs that explicitly teach social skills and self-regulation strategies.

Anne Button-Smith M.Ed is a Special Education advisor who delivers social programs and adult workshops in Toowoomba at A Social Bean.

This article was published in Issue 15 of our print magazine, April/May 2016.

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Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

1 thought on “Tantrums vs Sensory Meltdowns”

  1. Great to see the distinction between the two, I feel compassion for parents in public whose kids are distressed, I have heard responses from strangers that they are spoiled kids having a tantrum which I feel is very harsh. You never know what is going on, so it’s best not to judge.


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