You are listening to episode 76 of The Autism Mom Coach, Tantrums Versus Meltdowns.
Welcome to The Autism Mom Coach podcast, I am your host, Lisa Candera. I am a lawyer, a life coach, and most importantly, I am the full-time single mother of a teenager with Autism and other comorbid diagnoses. I know what it is like to wonder if you are doing enough or the right things for your child and to live in fear of their future.
I also know that constantly fueling yourself with fear and anxiety is not sustainable for you or of any benefit to your child. That is why in this podcast I will share practical strategies and tools you can use to shift from a chronic state of fight, flight to some calm and ease. You are your child’s greatest resource, let’s take care of you.
Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the podcast. I hope you are doing well and I hope you enjoyed last week’s episode, the three big meltdown mistakes and solutions. As I was taking a look at my roster of podcast episodes, it occurred to me that I had not yet done what the difference is between a tantrum versus a meltdown. So I thought that now would be a perfect time to do that because I don’t want to assume that all of you know the difference.
And I also assume that at some point, if not now, later, a person who is new to this journey of Autism is going to find this podcast and that this information will be important to them. So whether or not you are familiar with this information or not, take a listen and share the episode with someone in your life who you think might benefit from it. It could be another mom of a child with Autism or maybe it’s from somebody else in your life like a family member or a friend who might not understand your child’s behaviors and you want to share with them a little bit more information. This podcast will be perfect for that.
Alright, let’s start this conversation by talking about the similarities between tantrums and meltdowns because there are similarities. Like I said, to the untrained or inexperienced eye, they look very much the same. First, they usually involve children, small children. They are generally loud and disruptive, they involve crying, screaming, kicking, pushing. And of course the classic example of a child who is tantruming or melting down, flailing about on the ground but these similarities are pretty much it.
These things might look alike, but they are so different, nevertheless, when things look similar, we tend to think about them the same way. We use mental shortcuts in our brain to put things into categories so that we can quickly assess them and understand how to respond and we all do this. For instance, you see your neighbor walking a four legged animal on a leash and most of us would think dog and usually it is, but not always.
But then imagine every time you were on the walking trail, or just taking a walk, you see a four legged animal trotting alongside a human and you have to determine from scratch what the heck it is. That would take a lot of mental energy. And since our brains detest expending energy unnecessarily, it creates shortcuts. So if it looks like a dog, if it walks like a dog, then we conclude it is a dog. As useful as mental shortcuts can be, they can also create a lot of misunderstandings and suffering.
And I think the distinction between tantrums and meltdowns is one of those areas, it looks like a tantrum, it sounds like a tantrum, that does not mean it’s a tantrum. However, so many of us were socialized to associate screaming, yelling, uncooperative kid with bad kid or bad parent or both. And for every parent who has ever had the experience of their child acting out, whether a tantrum or a meltdown in front of other people, you have likely had that thought or that fear that other people are judging you.
And this is because you know the mental shortcut, you know that when you see a yelling, screaming kid, it signals in your brain that this is possibly a brat or a bad parent. You have probably used or heard other people using this shortcut and now you fear it’s being applied to you. I say all of this to normalize the experience for you and also to normalize the folks in our lives who don’t get it, how could they? If you’re not living in this world and you see something that looks like a duck and walks like a duck and talks like a duck, you’re going to conclude it’s a duck.
And the same thing is true with the distinction between tantrums and meltdowns. However, like I said, there are differences and I want you to know this for your own edification and how to think about and how to respond to the behaviors. But also as you’re kind of an ambassador at this point, if you’re a parent of a child with Autism, you are a representative. And that does not mean that you need to educate the general public every time you go out, but there will be times, there will be people that you will want to share this information with and so here we go, let’s talk about the differences.
First, purpose. Tantrums, generally speaking, are goal oriented. The goal might be candy at the checkout aisle, more screen time or avoiding a task like chores. During a tantrum a child is acting out for a particular reason and they have some control over it. They might even stop long enough just to make sure that you are watching them because tantrums, since they are goal oriented, require an audience.
I remember my sister had a tantrum every night after dinner, well, not every night, just the nights it was her turn to do the dishes. Sometimes I was so sick of listening to her that I would offer to do them for her, just so she would shut up and then miraculously the tears would disappear. This does not happen with a meltdown. Meltdowns are not goal oriented in the way that a tantrum is. Meltdowns stem from sensory overload or emotional overwhelm.
The triggers could be changes in routine, something they perceive as unexpected, sensory sensitivities or difficulties in communication, both in saying what’s going on and even in understanding what’s going on in the first place in order to communicate it. I would also add the stress of masking over a long period of time.
Take our children who are at school or program all day, they’re trying to keep it together so much and then they lose it the moment they walk in the door. This isn’t a tantrum. It’s not goal oriented in the sense that they want something, it’s that they are completely flooded and overwhelmed. So again, we aren’t talking about calculated crying. We aren’t talking about a child who is going for an Oscar. We are talking about a full out fight or flight stress response that has been activated.
A kid who is melting down often appears to be out of control because they are. They again are in a full out stress response and their rational thinking is offline, they are just reacting and reacting.
The second difference between tantrums and meltdowns has to do with age. Tantrums are a normal part of childhood development and we expect to see tantrums from toddlers and kids in their early years of elementary school. But as they develop and become more capable of expressing themselves with language and more attuned to social norms and expectations, they usually have fewer tantrums. Autism meltdowns, on the other hand, have no age limit.
I remember explaining this to my therapist, who looked at me very quizzically when I told her about my 14 year old having a meltdown in public. She found it quite surprising that a 14 year old would do this especially in front of their friends. But unlike a neurotypical child, our kids usually don’t care much about who is around or watching. Again, they’re kind of out of their minds at that point, there is no rational thinking.
They are not assessing the audience and making calculations about how the behavior might impact them in the future. In fact, most of them don’t really even have that capability to begin with. This is all to say, Autism meltdowns do not have an age limit. So again a big difference with tantrums.
And another thing that makes it really confusing, because we interpret the behavior. And when we see the behavior coming out of somebody who is 10, 15, 20, 25 plus years old, we interpret that behavior very differently than we do it coming out of a five or a six year old, that’s both for us and for other people. For instance, I get much more triggered by my son’s behaviors now that he’s older and bigger and stronger than I did when he was younger. I perceive them differently in my nervous system.
And the same thing is going to go for other people, hearing a blood curdling scream from a 15 year old and him yelling and screaming, people will react to that a lot differently than a five year old and so that’s one of the reasons. And I know that people differ on this about how much they share about their child’s disability with other people.
I have always taken the approach of more is better because I want to educate people on why we might just leave a party and not say goodbye. Because sometimes my son is too flooded and yes, he’s 15, yes, you think that he should be able to handle it, but the fact is sometimes he can’t. And so having people understand that is a benefit but sometimes they don’t and we still have to make the decisions that we make.
Alright, the third difference between tantrums and meltdowns, intensity and duration. Now, of course, tantrums can be intense, but the intensity is usually short lived and sometimes they go as quickly as they come like a passing lightning storm. The child gets what she wants or he realizes that his behaviors aren’t working and they fade down to a whimper. Autism meltdowns are intense and they can be long lasting.
I will never forget my son’s meltdown about Minecraft, it lasted for two or three hours because he was playing Minecraft and he lost his pigs and his house burned down because apparently he had it in survival mode, not creative. And he lost all of his work, apparently, and he was just beside himself for hours, screaming, inconsolable. It just did not matter what I said to him, how I tried to help, he was out of it.
So much so, he was so triggered by this, it was so emotionally overwhelming for him that the next day when his one-on-one aide asked him if he had played Minecraft the night before, before reading the note from me in his communication book, of course. He asked my son and my son exploded again, he was inconsolable again a day later. So meltdowns can be intense and they do not come and go in five minutes, sometimes they do, but that’s not all the time.
The fourth difference, resolution. I already touched on this, but tantrums usually end once the person gets what they want or they don’t see a benefit in continuing, meltdowns on the other hand, do not. And I find this so frustrating. You can make all the promises, you can give in to whatever you think your child wants and they will still be melting down. This is because in so many cases, the child doesn’t even know what he or she wants or have the ability to communicate it or express it when they are in this fight, flight response.
And this goes for verbal children too. I can tell you from my experiences with my son who is very verbal that when he is overwhelmed, when he is flooded, communication basically just shuts off. He is just reacting, he’s just screaming, he’s just yelling. He can’t even gather his thoughts for a second to really express what’s going on so I can understand it.
And the fifth way the tantrums and meltdowns are different is in response. Now, I think this is the biggest or really one of the most important differences to understand. You do not respond to a tantrum and a meltdown in the same way, well, you can try, but it’ll probably backfire. So all of that great advice that we get from the parents or the onlookers about you shouldn’t give them his way or you should take away the iPad or you should do this or you should do that. That’s from people who do not get it.
So for tantrums we usually employ the traditional disciplines. You ignore it or you tell the child if you keep doing it, then there will be a punishment or there’s an immediate punishment. Now, this most of the time works for a tantrum and there have been times where my son is in the very beginning parts of a tantrum where I’ve been able to cut it off at the pass and he was able to redirect and there wasn’t a meltdown.
Now, sometimes tantrums, if they go on too long for any kid, especially our kids, pretty quickly will turn into a meltdown. And once this happens, the if you do this then I will do that types of punishments for my son at least have backfired. Because when he’s losing it, when he’s yelling and crying that he lost his game, me telling him that, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to take the game away”, would just send him through the roof. It would make it worse. It would really be like throwing gasoline on a fire.
And this is the important part to remember because again, we’re seeing the behaviors and we’re reacting to the behaviors, but mostly with our unconscious thinking. And no matter how educated any of us are about Autism, there are parts of us and maybe bigger for some than others that are like, he should just be listening to me. He shouldn’t be doing this. This is bullshit, he’s doing this on purpose. All of those thoughts come up. Totally natural.
But when those thoughts come up during a meltdown and we start responding to our children from those thoughts, we are most likely going to respond in a way that escalates the meltdown. So just remember, a meltdown is not a teachable moment. Instead of threats or consequences, the response to an Autism meltdown must focus on safety first and then moving the child into an environment with less stimuli. This could be leaving the birthday party early. Done that a bunch. Going into a quiet room, lights off to decompress. It could mean tight squeezes or hugs or earphones.
It all really depends on your child and the situation but the idea here is not to lecture or make an example in front of your friends that you do discipline your child. It is to respond to the overwhelm that they are experiencing with as much calm as you can so that you can help them regulate. The teachable moment is not for now, it’s for later once everyone is regulated.
Now, the things that you do to try to downregulate your child during a meltdown might look like taking it easy on them to the outside world. It might look like you’re letting them get away with it. It might look that way to people who don’t know but you do know. And right now, during a meltdown your job is not to educate the general public on Autism or to defend yourself, it is to keep you and your child safe. And the way that you do that is really just focusing on, how can I help them regulate themselves?
And for you, in order for you to do this, it’s really tuning out all of the other noise about what other people will think, because that will make it harder for you to stay regulated and then regulate them. And that’s why so many of us during a meltdown know that the tantrum advice, the old school advice of all of the things that we should do. It doesn’t work.
And so I want you to focus on what you do know that works, what works for you and do that. Because you do know the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum and you know that your child isn’t doing this because they’re a bad kid. They are flooded and you want to be able to respond to them from that perspective.
Alright now, that is the difference between tantrums and meltdowns. I am sure there are some I missed but I think that those are the big ones. Now, if you are struggling to manage your emotions when your kid is melting down or if you are adding fuel to the fire during their meltdown or struggling to take your child out in public because you fear what other people will think or you’re struggling in your relationships with family members or friends who don’t get it. All of these are topics that I help my clients with in my one-on-one coaching program.
So if these are areas that you are struggling in and that you want some support in, I can help you. To learn more, book your complimentary consultation for my one-on-one program. You can do this in the show notes or on my website theautismmomcoach.com/workwithme. Alright. I will talk to you next week.
Thanks for listening to The Autism Mom Coach. If you are ready to apply the principles you are learning in these episodes to your life, it is time to schedule a consultation call with me. Podcasts are great but the ahas are fleeting. Real change comes from application and implementation and this is exactly what we do in my one-on-one coaching program. To schedule your consultation, go to my website, theautismmomcoach.com, Work With Me and take the first step to taking better care of yourself so that you can show up as the parent you want to be for your child with Autism.