Little boy on the floor having a temper tantrum

When Is a Temper Tantrum Not a Temper Tantrum? 

Most parents have had to deal their child’s temper tantrums, especially during ages when they are in a state of disequilibrium growth-wise, which can happen at around age 2 ½, 4 and even when they are as old as 11 and 17.

I think there also is an adult version of a temper tantrum that happens when an adult gives in to anger or frustration and stomps their feet, pounds on things, even throws things. In those moments the adult can appear to be out of control, much like what happens when a 2 ½-year-old throws a temper tantrum. You yourself may be able to relate to this in moments of great frustration.

In working with my colleague, Suzanne O’Connor, Director of Trauma-Informed Early Childhood Education for Lakeside Global Institute (LGI), she discovered this very important concept of being able to differentiate between temper tantrums and sensory meltdowns. Many early childhood education professionals we are working with shared that this was a very powerful concept that gave them new insights on why children act the way they do and what they might need.

Here is how temper tantrums differ from sensory meltdowns: According to Google, a temper tantrum is a controlled behavioral response to not getting something a child wants. A sensory meltdown is an uncontrolled triggered response that occurs when a child is overstimulated by a thought or something in their environment.

The website LuxAi is an excellent resource for information about sensory meltdowns, with their own special focus on this common phenomenon with kids on the autistic spectrum. They share the following: “Many of us have witnessed a child having a tantrum in public places. It is easy to judge children and their parents for such behaviors. However, not many of us would think about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at those times. The explosion of anger and emotions accompanied with screams and other disruptive behaviors can be an autistic meltdown.”

They explain some of the differences between temper tantrums and autistic meltdowns, also known as sensory meltdowns. Below are some of the differences.

“A temper tantrum is a controlled behavioral response to not getting something a child wants. A sensory meltdown is an uncontrolled triggered response that occurs when a child is overstimulated by a thought or something in their environment This oversensitivity can cause the person to get overwhelmed, which leads them towards having a meltdown. Meltdowns are often more severe and emotional, more long-lasting and more difficult to handle than temper tantrums.”

Here is an excellent chart that differentiates between temper tantrums and sensory overload:

I encourage you to check out the excellent information on this website to learn more about sensory meltdowns, including some very helpful tips on preventing and managing them.

And remember that adults can also have their own version of temper tantrums and sensory meltdowns. The same principles for preventing and managing them apply, regardless of the age of the person experiencing one of these.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What are some of your first reponses to this information? Is it a new concept for you?
  2. How does knowing about the differences between temper tantrums and sensory meltdowns impact your understanding of what the child (or adult) might need in those moments when they are experiencing either a temper tantrum or a sensory meltdown?
  3. How might this information help you in those moments when you are extremely frustrated and may be either heading towards a temper tantrum or a sensory meltdown? What specifically might you do?
  4. How do you think gaining this information will impact early childhood educators? How might that help them and how might that then help the children in their care?



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