How are tantrums different from meltdowns?

A Speech Pathology & Occupational Therapy perspective.

Tantrums are a common occurrence during childhood, and can be very distressing for parents, the child and others involved.

Here at Cooee Speech Pathology & Occupational Therapy, our families are often asking our Northside Speech Pathologists and Occupational Therapists how they can manage tantrums and behaviour at home.   

Whilst we are not psychologists giving advice on behavior, the information we provide below is based on our Speech Pathologists’ knowledge of how language breaks down under stress,  the DIR Floortime strategies from Dr Stanley Greenspan, in combination with knowledge from our Occupational Therapists around regulation.


The first steps in being able to respond to your child’s “tantrum” is to determine whether the behaviour is a tantrum or a meltdown, and why your child is exhibiting this behaviour. 

Behaviour is communication, and the expression of challenging behaviours (including tantrums and meltdowns) is a means for the child to communicate a message (i.e. “I do not feel okay”). As Speechies, we typically want to try to understand what message the child is trying to tell us with their behaviour, and address the message, rather than the behaviour itself.


Tantrums are generally based on frustration, and kids may attempt to regain control using their behaviours.   


This can include: 

  • Screaming/yelling, 
  • Hitting/punching, 
  • Extreme refusal or ignoring behaviour. 


When a child is having a tantrum, they are still in control of their body and have awareness of the situation they are in. As the child is expressing tantrum behaviours, they will watch the adult involved to see if their tantrum is effective. If the tantrum is effective, and the child gets their own way, there is instant emotional recovery and the child goes back to being happy. 


During a tantrum, you can help reduce the language load for children by:


  • Remaining calm, and being clear with your initial intentions/instructions, reducing the language load by dropping back to short sentences can help. 
  • Being firm with your rules and remaining non-negotiable throughout the duration of the tantrum, using visuals for your rules, and positive language (i.e. telling the child what you DO want them to do, not what to stop) can be helpful for reducing language load. 
  • Being consistent with the rules, consequences and responses to the specific behaviour you are observing, and continuing to use this same response for future instances of the behaviour.  For children with language difficulties, using visuals, including sketches or flow charts can help.


If you are concerned regarding the frequency and/or nature of your child’s tantrums, or would like supporting managing your child’s tantrums, it is best to get in touch with a Psychologist. A Psychologist can help you understand why these behaviours are occurring and provide individualised strategies to help manage the behaviours at home. 


Meltdowns are an involuntary response that occur when a child becomes overwhelmed based on something within their environment.

This can include: social experiences, cognitive (i.e. thinking) load, linguistic (i.e. communication) load and/or sensory experiences. When having a meltdown, the child cannot control their actions or emotions and are using their behaviours to escape and distance themselves from the overwhelming stimuli.


This can include: 

  • Leaving the room, 
  • Screaming/crying, 
  • Kicking/hitting, 
  • Hiding in/under furniture, 
  • ‘Shut down’ by ignoring/not considering those around them. 


After a meltdown, the child may have no memory of the meltdown occurring or the stimuli that triggered the meltdown. They can  take some time to return to their calm state.



During a meltdown, you can respond by:


  • Removing the distressing stimuli, if you know what it is – e.g. other children, furniture, distressing item, etc.,  
  • Providing solitude to the child by taking them to a quiet place to be alone OR removing others from the environment,  
  • Giving the child time to move through the meltdown and recover after the meltdown,  
  • Implementing strategies recommended by your allied health team to manage the child’s emotions during and post-meltdown.
    **Note: these strategies need to be adapted to the individual child, and may change over time.


If you are concerned regarding your child’s meltdowns, and would like to seek additional support to help your child regulate, it is best to get in touch with an Occupational Therapist. The Occupational Therapist can investigate your child’s sensory profile and help identify strategies to co-regulate your child.