At a Glance:

  • A sensory meltdown is not a tantrum

  • It is a reaction to sensory overwhelm

  • The best response to a meltdown is to lower the stimulation level

Any parent knows the dread of a public tantrum. You feel as if all eyes are judging your (obviously inferior) parenting skills as your child screams, yells, kicks or runs around while you desperately try to calm the situation. You can feel the disapproving stares and you imagine that you can hear the critical comments above your child’s bellows. If this sounds familiar – you are not alone!
But are you really dealing with a tantrum? Or is your child having a sensory meltdown? Although they might look the same, there is a big difference between the two. So how can you tell what’s causing your child’s behaviour? And what’s the best way to manage it?

What Does a Tantrum Look Like?

You know how it feels. You’ve walked past something exciting that your child suddenly has to have when you’re out shopping. It might be candy at the checkout or an enticing toy on the end of the toy aisle. Your child starts to whine and demand the treat.
“No, darling,” you say. “We have enough toys/you don’t need the sugar/whatever it is you say.”
But “no” doesn’t work. Your child is still demanding the treat. As you go through the checkout and your child realizes that no might be the final word, you find yourself face to face with a colossal performance. There are tears and screams with kicking and thrashing on the floor. Your child even stops to make sure you are paying attention before resuming the behaviour. Ten or twenty old ladies (at least) are standing around with disapproving stares and two teenagers behind you cover their ears.
Oh, the shame. You know that you shouldn’t give in, but just this once, you need to make it out alive. You grab the treat (or a worthy substitute) and hand it over. There is instant peace and you can feel the collective sigh of relief from all the onlookers as the noise stops. Your child’s tantrum achieved its purpose: it secured the desired object by eliciting a response from you.

How is a Sensory Meltdown Different?

Now let’s assume the same scenario happens again. But this time, after you hand over the treat, the performance doesn’t end. You struggle out of the checkout and drag your kicking, screaming child to the car. The stares follow you as you make your embarrassed way through the crowded shopping centre.
When you get to the car, your child continues to yell and thrash around. It continues all the way home, where it finally ends in exhaustion. Your child has had a sensory meltdown, a response to overwhelming sensory stimuli. Wanting the treat was the trigger, not the reason for the behaviour.

A Sensory Meltdown: a Response to Unbearable Stimulation

All children can become overwhelmed by excess stimulation, but for children with sensory processing disorder or autism, sensory overwhelm can be unbearable. They can only process a limited amount of information before there is no capacity to deal with more. When information keeps pouring in and has nowhere to go, overwhelm sets in and a meltdown occurs because the child has no control over the input and can’t cope.

Tantrum-Taming vs Meltdown Management

The purpose of a tantrum is to get a response or achieve a desired outcome. Children are in control of the behaviour; that’s why your child might stop to make sure you are taking notice before continuing the performance. Try these tips for managing tantrums:

  • Acknowledge your child’s desire without giving in to the behaviour. “I can see that you want that toy. If you still want it when it’s your birthday, we’ll get it then.”
  • Help your child to understand that there is a better way to get what they want. “If you can go for a whole week without any tantrums, we can get the toy next week. We’ll mark each day off on the calendar. But you need to start now.”
  • Reasoning or the promise of a reward for good behaviour often doesn’t work with young children. If this happens, stay calm and wait out the tantrum. When your child is calm, explain that bad behaviour is not how to get what they want and suggest alternative strategies.
  • Avoid rewarding the behaviour by giving in
  • Avoid paying attention to bad behaviour by becoming angry or pleading with your child to stop
  • Help your child name and process big emotions that are triggering the behaviour, such as feeling frustrated or disappointed
  • Avoid known tantrum triggers such as the lolly aisle at the supermarket

Sensory Meltdown Strategies

When a meltdown occurs, the child is unable to control what is a reaction to an overwhelming sensory input (such as a day at the shopping centre). Recognizing the warning signs can help you to head off a meltdown before it happens. When you are in the danger zone:

  • Watch for patterns that help you to identify triggers
  • Recognize the warning signs such as trying to hide, being vague or unfocused, having trouble following instructions, or complaining of physical symptoms
  • Speak calmly and slowly. Don’t force your child to engage or make decisions
  • Allow your child time to process your words and be patient
  • Distraction works for some children

If a meltdown occurs:

  • Find somewhere quiet for your child to calm down
  • If you can identify the source of the sensory overload, take steps to reduce it
  • Remain calm and stay close to your child but don’t talk too much
  • Use calming strategies that work for your child (for example, deep pressure touch)

After a meltdown:

  • Give your child time to recover and refocus
  • Make it clear that your child is not in trouble but that you would like to talk
  • Never scold or punish your child for a meltdown
  • Lots of kids feel bad after a meltdown so avoid guilt trips or other negative emotions
  • Say your piece but keep it brief
  • Make sure that your child understands what you have said
  • If you are putting plans in place for managing meltdowns in the future, make sure that your child understands what will happen

You Don’t Have to Live in Fear of a Sensory Meltdown

Dealing with a sensory meltdown or tantrum can be exhausting and overwhelming. But meltdowns don’t have to rule your life or dictate what you can and can’t do. With practice, you can learn to identify triggers and head them off before they happen. Put a plan into place for the next time your child gets overwhelmed and you will feel more prepared to deal with it. And let us know what has worked for you. We would love to hear from you!

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