Tantrums Vs. Meltdowns

Monday, March 29th, 2021

By: Natalie Day, M.S., CCC-SLP

Three of our talented speech therapists, Sarah Denman, Eileen Adamo, and Joelle Umstead, shared a presentation with our speech staff at a recent staff meeting! They taught us about tantrums versus meltdowns: how to recognize the difference, how to know when one is coming, and some strategies to prevent them from happening. Here are some highlights and helpful takeaways!

Tantrums vs. Meltdowns: What’s the difference?


  • An intentional change in behavior to get a desired result
  • Require cognitive functioning (i.e. the child is thinking about and choosing to behave this way)
  • Children often check in to make sure they have an adult’s attention


  • An involuntary reaction to overwhelming stimuli
  • Could be a sensory-related response
  • Could be a response to an overwhelming cognitive load or demand
How can I know when my child is going to have a meltdown? Some (but not all) warning signs of an oncoming meltdown are:

1. Pacing back and forth or in circles

Increasing self-stimulatory behaviors (flapping, self-talking)

3. Perseverating on one topic

4. Extreme resistance to stopping a ritual or routine

What can I do to help prevent meltdowns from happening?
  1. Have clearly defined physical areas to help the child understand expectations (e.g. eat dinner at table, then play in living room). Structured, predictable environments are comforting.
  2. Allow the child to keep a security item, like a small toy or comfort object, if it helps them feel calm when difficulties arise.
  3. Address any sensory needs the child might have and teach them how to ask for a break if/when they become overstimulated, and manage the child’s anxiety with things like deep breathing, breaks/walks, or calming boxes.
  4. Provide clear expectations about routines and schedules, and keep them as predictable as possible.
  5. Use visual supports and schedules to help provide predictability. A special picture can be used for when the routine unexpectedly changes; the plan will change but the picture will be familiar.

The most important thing to do is to use these strategies during calm times so they can be effective to avoid meltdowns.