A toddler tantrum or a meltdown – what´s the difference?

Is my toddler having a tantrum or a meltdown?

It can be really difficult for parents to know how to deal with a child in distress.  Emotional outbursts from kids are among parents’ biggest challenges; it can be really hard to understand, know what to do and say, or prevent it from happening. Likewise, it can be really hard for the child to be ‘in’ the tornado of an emotional outburst. Particularly if the adult around them doesn’t know how to handle the situation. 

We need to be sensitive to the fact that a tantrum and a meltdown are not the same and therefore need to be dealt with differently, and with sensitivity. 

Key advice for both a toddler tantrum and a toddler meltdown

Don’t just do something, stand there!  And by this I mean first make sure you ‘do no harm’ – it is very easy to fall into the trap of making things worse!

Do not

  1. For both a tantrum and meltdown don´t try to use reason or logic: ‘but you will be tired tomorrow’, ‘No I won’t’, ‘but you will not be able to eat your dinner’, ‘Yes I will’ …..they cannot hear you right now anyway, they are in their own world of deep emotions!
  2. Don´t try to talk your child out of the feeling: ‘Stop being so silly’, ‘you will get better soon’, ‘it is not that loud’, ‘don’t get so upset about it’. These judgements from us will not help the child learn to calm themselves.  It is not our ‘job’ to control and decide how they feel. Nor what is a right or wrong feeling for them. But rather to teach them to become aware of these feelings, and then decide what to do with them. We can’t get rid of a feeling but we can learn to control it so it doesn’t hijack the outcome.   

Try instead

  1. Be sensitive: A tantrum or a meltdown is not a nice place to be for the child. It is important to be sensitive to this and keep reminding ourselves, that the child isn’t enjoying it. It is actually not feeling good in the moment.
  2. Stay calm, be a role model:  the best thing you can do is to teach yourself calming strategies so you can help your child stay calm and get the situation under control. Our kids mirror everything we do and say. It will not help the situation to go ‘hard against hard’, where we raise our voice and yell at them with frustration and anger. It will only get worse.
  3. Try to keep your voice low and neutral. That shows that we are in control of ourselves and what we do and say, and how we do it. This will make us safe to be with. Because we send a signal to the child that, ‘we are ok, we are under control’. There is no danger that we will suddenly start screaming or shaming and blaming.
  4. Here is a little tip on how you can control yourself: before you do and say anything stop and breathe. Just pause and check in with yourself and your emotions: ‘I am so mad right now, and that is ok. This is my feeling – but I don’t want this emotion to hijack how I behave or set the scene’.
  5. Less is more: words can be a dangerous thing. Keep what you want to say at a minimum. If we lapse into verbal diarrhea, we are in danger of getting carried away and saying things we do not mean or regret later.  Plus, the more we speak the less they listen! Did you know that only 7% of our communication need to be words! The rest is tone, body language and our focus!!
  6. Stay curious, not furious: understanding the “why” is the key here. All behavior has a meaning and our kid’s behavior is their way of communicating – ‘telling us something’. They most likely don’t have the skills (yet) to say, ‘mum, dad I am feeling very upset because my little brother took my toy and I need some help here’.  Look for the trigger to their tantrum or meltdown: are they tired, sad, feeling unfairly treated, over-stimulated? Then try to avoid the triggers or simple be aware of them.

The toddler tantrum

A toddler tantrum have a purpose i.e. the child wants something they can’t have. The tantrum normally stops when the child has got what he wants. Or when we as adults have changed the strategy of how we deal with the tantrum.

A tantrum is normally milder, and a child tries to exert some level of control over his behavior. Tantrums are normally when a child struggles to deal with his own emotions, i.e. anger or disappointment. The child wants something. He can’t get it, and then gets angry as he feels he ‘deserves or has a right’ to it. I can remember my son at age 5 totally losing it when he couldn’t watch more television at bedtime. ‘I want to watch more, I don’t get it, I won’t be tired tomorrow’. 

The meltdown

A meltdown is usually a reaction to being overwhelmed or overloaded in some way. This might be due to sensory overload – too much information from their senses. Sounds, sights, texture, tastes, touch, smell etc.

The emotional part of the stressor causes the child to go into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. Meltdowns often happen in overly sensitive children because they can react very quickly to internal and external experiences.

Meltdown is when a child’s environment is ‘too much’. The child can’t say, ‘mum, dad I really think it is too loud in here so can we go?’ Or, ‘I am so tired and don’t want to play any more’. Or ‘I don’t like the feeling of the t-shirt, can I choose another one’, and so on.

Tantrums normally get milder or stop altogether if we ignore ‘it’, i.e. the unwanted behavior not the child. Whereas a child with a meltdown often feels that he has lost all sense of control. That’s simply due to the overload from the outside world. Then they can only calm down by getting the right support from adults around him.     

How to respond to a tantrum or a meltdown

Teach children the skills they are lacking: impulse control, problem solving, delaying, negotiating, communication of wishes, self-soothing.

Try this

When dealing with both a tantrum and a meltdown always come from a place of: 

  • Listening: I can hear you are really upset…
  • Understanding: because your brother took your toy…
  • Accepting: and I totally get that…

Listening, understanding and accepting how the child feels is not the same as agreeing.

How to deal with the toddler tantrum

With tantrums make sure that the child doesn’t get a positive result from his behavior. First acknowledge that you can hear (listen) that he is upset and that you get why (understand) and then try to leave it there. There is no need to join in with the ‘tornado’. You can ignore the unwanted behavior, but the main thing is to re-engage once the tantrum has subsided. This sends a signal that they will get your full attention once the behavior has calmed down. Kids may have learned from our reinforcement to have a tantrum since the tantrum gets a result. They get our attention or what they want! So the most important thing is not to give in to a tantrum. We can ‘teach’ them that this kind of behavior doesn’t get results.

How to deal with the meltdown

It is not advisable to ignore a meltdown, though. Your child really needs you and your help to calm down here. First check what is going on in the environment that might have triggered it. Is he really tired and just needs to go home or leave the place? Is there too much noise? Maybe he does need to put on another shirt! Stay with him. I would not advise you to hug him but you can ask, ‘do you need a hug?’ Stay close enough so the child feels supported and you can say, ‘I am here when you need me’. Give him space but in a caring environment where he knows you are there when he needs you. Where he knows that you can contain the emotions can control himself!

Don’t judge, think positive: Sensitive children quickly ‘read’ the environment and detect negative feelings, even mild ones. It can really make a meltdown spiral if they sense that you are thinking, ‘oh no here she goes again’, ‘I can’t deal with this’, ‘I am so sick of this’ etc. Instead, check in with yourself, stay calm and challenge your negative self-thoughts: ‘I can deal with this’, ‘she needs my help’, ‘she has so many great qualities’ etc. 


Don’t try to problem solve with your child during the tantrum or meltdown as it will not be effective; they are too absorbed in their feelings. Afterwards you can sit down and talk about what caused it and discuss how you can help the next time. For instance: ‘you got really upset there Sam, and I get it, there were too many kids there! That upset you and that is ok. What can we do next time? Or what do you need from me?’ You can talk about where and how he felt it, his triggers. Maybe you can have a ‘sign’ together that he can use to tell you that he is about to get upset and it is time to leave.

Praise your child when he does try to soothe himself during an outburst. ‘I can see you are trying really hard not to scream, that is really brave of you’. Or afterwards you can say, ‘you know what Sam, I could see that you really tried not to get so upset and that was very big of you’. 

Remember this is not about you but your child….and keep it there.

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