Toddler”s big emotions can often feel overwhelming and perplexing, especially when it comes to tantrums vs meltdowns.
If you find yourself wondering what the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is? Why toddlers have meltdowns, what age do tantrums stop, or how tantrums even turn into meltdowns? You’re in the right place.
In this post you’ll discover how to spot the difference between the two and ways to help your child, in follow up posts I’ll cover strategies for preventing tantrums and meltdowns, and ways to help your child process big emotions through play.
WATCH TANTRUMS VS. MELTDOWNS
What is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?
While tantrums and meltdowns can look similar as kids kick, scream, throw, hit, and cry during them, they are actually quite different.
Tantrums generally have a specific reason for occuring and don’t last more than 15 minutes or so. Once the big emotion has resolved, your child will go back to their curious, playful self and don’t impact the rest of the day.
Meltdowns on the other hand are often the result of sensory overload as well as imbalances in the system (gut health like fungal or bacterial overgrowths, hormonal or mineral imbalances, and a dysregulated nervous system). Meltdowns can last longer than 15 minutes, and even once the big emotion has passed, your child seems down, withdrawn, or exhausted.
Tantrum vs Meltdown Chart:
- Lasts up to 15 minutes, then it’s done
- Child is still coherent and has some sense of being rooted in the present moment or control over their behavior
- Child may cry, yell, whine, hit, kick, or throw but likely not more than 1 or 2 of these during that time
- Tend to have a clear initial stressor, that once addressed ends the tantrum
- Tend to grow out of tantrums as language and other skills develop
- Normal developmental response for toddlers
- Tantrums can turn into meltdowns
- Lasts longer and even after stressor is seemingly cleared, child still seems a little “stuck” or “down
- Child seems out of control and distant almost – like they are far away even though you’re next to them
- Full body reaction (both seen or unseen)
- Child may cry, scream, kick, hit, throw, or shut down, withdraw, hide
- Cause of meltdown may be harder to identify as it’s more of an internal thing
- Can signal deeper dysregulation and imbalances at play
- Meltdowns can last a lifetime
Tantrums and Meltdowns Explained Via Polyvagal Theory:
Dr. Stephen Porges introduced the polyvagal theory in 1994 as an explanation of the vagus nerves response on emotional regulation as it relates to social interactions and our fear response.
While research around the hypothesis continues to grow, it does provide a really nice visual for parents to understand the difference between tantrums and meltdowns:
Ventral vagal is our curious, playful kiddo.
When they tantrum, they enter the sympathetic activation – what most of us know as “fight or flight.”
However, once they reach dorsal vagal activation, we’ve entered meltdown territory. This is when our child may be next to use, but seems far away.
You may even recognize these stresses response in yourself as an adult; only instead of yelling/kicking in a tantrum, you may complain, get snippy, or feel anxious in your body while in the sympathetic state.
And just like it takes you longer to come back to being yourself after being shut down, it takes kids longer to move back through the autonomic nervous system ladder to ventral vagal.
Can a temper tantrum turn into a meltdown?
Yes! As shown above, a tantrum is a stepping stone to a meltdown.
If a child isn’t able to get their needs met either by actually getting a specific tangible thing, or by an adult changing how they are responding to the child, the feelings of frustration and overwhelm can continue to push the child towards a meltdown.
Why do toddlers have meltdowns?
Meltdowns typically occur as a result of sensory overload and not being able to regulate their nervous system. Additionally, being ignored is one of the fastest ways to push a toddler into meltdown territory in my experience and opinion.
Historically, parents were told to ignore toddler tantrums as a way to stop the behavior.
This is an old behaviorist approach which believed by not rewarding the behavior with attention (even negative attention) the behavior would stop altogether.
However, there is a widely popular belief among mental health professionals today that loneliness can actually trigger deeper mental health issues. The rejection of acknowledgement when a child is clearly struggling can sense them into shut down/collapse.
Outwardly, it may look like the behaviorist approach worked, as the child stopped tantruming, however more and more people are recognizing that the “stopped” tantrum is actually a nervous system collapse, as explained by the polyvagal theory.
What age do tantrums stop?
Tantrums generally stop (or reduce dramatically) by 3 years old or so as children develop the verbal capacity to express their wants/needs.
With the rise of montessori parenting, as well as gentle and respectful parenting styles, which give the toddler choices and more independence than historically authoritative parenting styles, I think we’ve actually seen a massive decrease in what was formerly known as “the terrible twos” and tantrums.
What age do meltdowns stop?
Meltdowns are a deeply ingrained nervous system response that children do not grow out of by simply acquiring more language. Instead they need to learn to regulate their nervous systems effectively, which is proving a great challenge in current times.
I think we’re seeing an increase in meltdowns with less time spent in nature, and the rise of screen time (re: sensory overload) and processed foods. Children and adults are having a harder time regulating their nervous system as a whole.
Example of tantrum vs meltdown:
Say a parent needs toddler to get in car seat but the toddler wants to keep playing.
Tantrum: Child kicks and screams, starts throwing their toys or running away from parent. Parent says, “I know you want to keep playing, but we need to leave. I’m going to pick you up now and put you in your car seat. I’ll leave your toys exactly how you left them to play with when we get back.” After a minute or two toddler realizes he’s getting in the car seat no matter what and stops crying/screaming.
Now a tantrum can turn into a meltdown.
Meltdown: Toddler gets in the car seat, but instead of stopping crying and screaming, they now start thrashing their limbs, pulling at the car seat strap saying it’s hurting them, and seem to be escalating.
We have clear sensory overload with disliking the touch of the car seat, we have an escalation of their emotions versus a wind down, and we’re unsure why the escalation is happening.
How do I know if my toddler’s tantrums are normal?
If a toddler’s tantrum lasts for less than 15 minutes, and they return to their normal toddler-y, playful, curious self afterwards, then it’s likely a totally normal developmentally appropriate response.
When should I worry about my toddler’s meltdown?
Toddler meltdowns that occur frequently, and/or put them at risk of hurting themselves or others, it may be time to consult a pediatrician or psychologist.
Additionally, a registered dietitian who specializes in children, chiropractor, or a professional certified in craniosacral therapy (CST), such as a pediatric occupational therapist, may help resolve tension or imbalancing in the body.
Meltdowns and overall health:
Meltdowns aren’t something kids typically grow out of without some help. Meltdowns tend to happen more often in kids predisposed to anxiety, autism, ADHD, and other mental health disorders.
Often times, meltdowns have a gut health component like a bacterial or fungal overgrowth. The likelihood of this goes up if your child has a history of cradle cap or skin rashes, even if they grew out of them. I’d strongly encourage you to work with a professional to get an in-depth GI map done that looks deeper bacterial/fungal pathogens like H.pylori, candida, and potentially parasites.
Additionally, meltdowns put a great toll on the body. Consider getting an HTMA (hair test mineral analysis) test to see if their overactive nervous system response is due to a mineral imbalance.
Generally speaking, if your child has a meltdown, I’d give them at least one, if not two adrenal cocktails that day and the next day. Adrenal cocktails do not have alcohol and taste delicious, they are just a whole food source of vitamin c, potassium, and sodium. You can Google loads of recipes but the most common one is orange juice, coconut water, salt, and cream of tartar. We keep a pitcher of this in our fridge every day for the family to pour from whenever feeling a little anxious or stressed.
Primitive reflexes + fascial strain/trauma
Our fascia runs through our entire body, covering every muscle, bone, and cell. It can experience strains or trauma from in-utero and through daily life. Some believe these tension points can lead to a dysregulated nervous system. If you suspect this may be the case, working with a chiropractor trained specifically for babies and kids or someone certified in CST may be helpful.
Additionally, these strain patterns can lead to retained primitive reflexes. The likelihood of this increases if your child didn’t meet certain developmental milestones on time, like rolling or walking (and formerly crawling). A pediatric occupational therapist can help with this – and some are even trained in CST as well!
This type of physical support can help the body operate at it’s best so the nervous system can regulate appropriately.
When it comes to a tantrum vs. meltdown, as a parent, understanding the difference can help you decide how to respond to your child, both in the moment and throughout the day.
If your child seems to be escalating, then it’s time to pause, get at their eye level and see how you can support them; which I’ll cover in my next post!