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Behavior as Communication: Understanding Meltdowns and Temper Tantrums

Behavior as Communication: Understanding Meltdowns and Temper Tantrums
Posted on August 9, 2022 by CHS

Temper tantrums and meltdowns are often used interchangeably to describe behavior characterized through the expression of intense bursts of emotion(s). All behaviors have a purpose: to communicate. So, what is the difference between a temper tantrum and a meltdown?
Below we will discuss differences, causes, and strategies for responding to both.

What are temper tantrums?

As children become more curious and independent in the world around them, they may try new things that they are not yet ready for emotionally or physically. As a result, this which may cause frustration for a child. Temper tantrums occur when a child is trying to communicate their needs and these needs are not being met. This is a normal part of a child’s development. Temper tantrums often begin during a child’s first year typically continue to four years of age, usually decreasing in frequency and magnitude as the child’s communication skills increase.

Temper tantrums happen when a child expresses an outburst of irritability such as anger or frustration and lacks the coping skills to handle strong emotions or disappointments.

Temper tantrums can be physical or verbal. Some signs of these behaviors range from shouting, whining, crying, or physical aggression such as biting, kicking, throwing things, holding their breath, or falling to the floor.  

What causes temper tantrums?
Some causes of temper tantrums include:

  • Being tired or hungry
  • Seeking attention
  • Feeling upset, worried, or frustrated
  • An inability or difficulty expressing what they want or feel
  • Having something taken away from them or not being given what they want

Responding to a tantrum
Remember to remain calm. Children are learning how to cope and how to express their wants and needs. An adult modeling how to handle a particular situation can help children learn positive communication strategies.

  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions and provide language to help label those emotions. For example, “I see you are upset because it is clean-up time. I get upset too when I have to stop doing something fun.”
  • If it is safe to do so, ignore the temper tantrum until they are calmer and ready to talk.
  • Keep them safe and in sight and remove any dangerous objects within your child’s reach.
  • Do not give in to the tantrum; that will only reinforce the behavior.
  • Avoid power struggles. Try to compromise and help the child complete the necessary task. For example, “It is clean-up time. Can I help you pick up one toy, and you help me pick up one toy?”

Supporting your child during temper tantrums
Temper tantrums are a part of a child’s normal developmental growth process. Below are a few steps to support your child and help prevent or lessen temper tantrums from happening:

  • Recognizing your child’s limits: keep a log of when the behavior occurs, and reflect on what the child was doing before or after the temper tantrum. Reflect on the child’s environment when the behavior happened. Is there anything you can change to prevent the tantrum?
  • Be flexible: Provide your child with some control over their day. For example, assigning developmentally appropriate tasks such as feeding a family pet or having them prepare or choose their favorite snacks for the day.
  • Provide structure and consistency with a predictable schedule. If there is going to be a change in the schedule, give your child advance notice. For example, “It’s raining outside so we won’t be able to go to the park today like we planned. Let’s think of something fun we can do inside instead.”
  • Prepare for transitions in advance, this provides an opportunity for children to be ready for a change in the environment or routine. For example, “It is almost time to clean up. Would you like me to help you save what you are working on in a safe place so you can work on it again later?”
  • Reinforce positive behavior. For example, “Thank you for telling me you are frustrated. How can we help solve this problem together?”
  • Create a tool kit with your child that can help them self-soothe. The tool kit can include strategies for deep breathing or expressing emotions, a favorite comfort item, relaxing music, or paper and crayons for drawing.

What are meltdowns?
Meltdowns are a reaction to feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed and tend to be larger (more expressive, last longer, more extreme action) than a temper tantrum. Some reactions may include yelling, running away, shutting down, or withdrawing.

  • What can cause a meltdown?
  • Some causes of meltdowns include:
  • Sensory overload, which includes: sights, sounds, tastes, or textures
  • Sudden changes to everyday routines
  • Not being able to communicate their needs
  • Intense frustration

Responding to meltdowns
When a child is having a meltdown, it is important to remove the child from the sensory overload situation to a calmer environment. Children may need more time to calm down and process what is happening around them than when experiencing a temper tantrum.

Supporting your child during meltdowns

  • Become familiar with your child’s triggers and look for patterns in their behavior
  • Be patient and calm
  • Stay vigilant and notice when a meltdown may be escalating
  • Provide structure and consistency with a predictable schedule
  • Validate and label your child’s feelings
  • Create a tool kit with your child that can help them self-soothe. The tool kit can be customized to reduce or eliminate triggers. For example, a pair of dark sunglasses can help soothe light sensitivity, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones or child-safe ear plugs can minimize loud sounds
  • Share your child’s triggers and coping strategies with other family members, caregivers, or teachers who spend time with your child

When to consult your pediatrician
If your child is experiencing temper tantrums or meltdowns beyond the age of four, there may be other possible underlying causes, and it is important to consult with your pediatrician.
It is normal to feel frustrated and to need advice or support on how to handle temper tantrums or meltdowns safely. Below are a variety of resources to assist families.

References and Resources:

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