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How to Determine if Your Child is Having a Sensory Meltdown or a Tantrum

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

Meltdowns and tantrums can look very similar. Both may involve screaming and crying. Both may involve aggressive behaviors such as biting, kicking or hitting.

A sensory meltdown occurs when the central nervous system becomes so overwhelmed that it goes into a "fight or flight" response. When this happens, it is important to remember that the child is not in control. This meltdown would occur whether you were there to witness it or not (unless you're the trigger). A sensory meltdown does not require an audience. There is no goal - the child is simply reacting to something in the environment that has overwhelmed them.

A meltdown is an organic response to stimuli. During a sensory meltdown you may see the pupils dilate, the skin flush, and they may began to sweat. They may lose control of their bodily functions. A meltdown can last for a few minutes or over an hour. The child will have difficulty returning to a task or group. The meltdown will end once the nervous system has calmed down and the "flight or fight" response has ended. A child may remain on edge and be prone to another meltdown for the rest of the day.

A tantrum, on the other hand, is a behavior with a purpose. The goal may be avoidance of something the child does not want to do or may be to get something that they want, such as a toy or screen time. A tantrum requires an audience and will come to an end when the goal is met. After a tantrum, a child may quickly return to an activity or group without issue.

So the next question is: if my child is having a sensory meltdown, what do I do?

Before we talk about reaction, let's talk about prevention.

If your child has sensory processing disorder or is sensory sensitive, you need to identify patterns. The easiest way to do this is to journal. Write down when the meltdown occurs, what happened before it, what it looked like and how it ended. Do this for a few days. Look back at your notes and determine if the meltdowns occurred at the same time of day, or after a certain activity. By determining the triggers, you can help prevent the meltdown. Have anyone your child spends a great deal of time with, complete a journal. This may include a grandparent, a baby sitter or a teacher. The more information you have, the more likely you are to determine what is going on.

Unfortunately, the triggers aren't always obvious and the child may not be able to vocalize what they are feeling. I've witnessed massive meltdowns that occurred because the sound of the heat turning on was deafening. Try to be in tune with your child.

I heard a term recently from a fellow OT - "Sensory Detective". You must become a sensory detective!

The unfortunate news is, we cannot prevent every meltdown, no matter how good of a detective we are. So let's now talk about what to do when a meltdown occurs.

First, make sure you and the child are safe. Remember, a meltdown may be accompanied by biting, kicking and aggression because the body is in "fight or flight". Keeping the child safe may mean removing them from a group or having a designated space in your home or their classroom. This space should be sensory dense, meaning quiet, no bright lighting, and usually has a soft component, such as a pillow or blanket.

You must do everything in your power to remain calm. Two people in a state of high arousal is not good for anybody. Children are very intuitive and will feed off of your energy. Your voice should be level and quiet. You should do your best to get down to their level. Tell them you are here to help them and keep them safe. Avoid telling them that their behavior is bad or unacceptable. They are not in control at this point.

Stay close by until the meltdown is over and help them return to whatever activity they should be taking part in. Do not rush them. It's almost like they just had a panic attack - they need to go slow.

You may offer them calming stimuli - which should be a part of their safe, sensory space. This may be books or a preferred activity. I once worked with a little girl on the spectrum who had intense meltdowns. I quickly discovered that she absolutely loved letters. When she would have a meltdown I would take her to a safe place outside of her classroom and look at letter flash cards or sing the ABCs or find posters/wall hangings and identify the letters on them. I did not force her to do any of these things but I offered, and most of the time it helped the meltdown to dissolve.

I hope the information contained in this post is helpful and you can utilize this knowledge to assist your child.


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