Tantrums vs. meltdowns. Is there really a difference?
Recently, I’ve seen some chatter around social media about different types of tantrums. It worries me.
I’ve seen posts about tantrums vs meltdowns; upstairs vs downstairs tantrums; temper tantrums vs sensory overload. And my personal favourite: The kind of tantrums where kids are genuinely distressed vs. the kind where they are just being “manipulative”.
And I’ve had enough. Here’s why.
Kids don’t throw tantrums.
No really, hear me out.
We need to remove the word “tantrum” from our vocabulary
I’ve spoken about this before. The word tantrum has a negative connotation. It implies that our kids are somehow being intentionally manipulative, bratty, or disrespectful. Label something as a tantrum, and we immediately assume that a child is being difficult, oppositional or poorly behaved. Embarrassing. Attention seeking. Trying to get their own way. Causing a scene.
The word tantrum is limiting. It’s disrespectful. And it’s dismissive.
Think about it. Have you ever referred to adult behaviour as a tantrum? What did you mean by that? Probably that the adult was behaving “like a child”. It’s generally used as an insult. Which says a lot about the way we view children AND their emotions.
Because what are tantrums, really?
Tantrums are simply emotions
Emotions in a tiny inexperienced body, whose still developing brain doesn’t quite know what to do with them yet. A still developing brain that is learning how to regulate itself and meet the many different demands placed on it.
There is real science behind this. Emotion regulation is a skill that our kids need to learn. In fact, many of us adults with our fully developed brains are still learning this skill too.
And do you know what else? Emotions happen for a REASON. They don’t come from nowhere. They stem from a need. When we treat emotions as misbehaviour, and we attempt to squash, ignore or dismiss them as unimportant or trivial, then we are dismissing our child’s very real unmet needs.
Do you know what that feels like to a child? To a human being?
It feels invalidating. Like a rejection of them as a person.
But what about the manipulation?
The idea behind the tantrum vs. meltdown dichotomy is of course, that our response should be different depending on whether our child is manipulating us, or legitimately distressed. We should dutifully ignore our children when they attempt to manipulate us, and only respond when they are legitimately upset.
But, here’s the thing.
Children DO NOT know how to manipulate us.
Do they get upset when they don’t get their way? Of course! Don’t you?
But are they out to overthrow you, steal your power, or make your life hard? No.
Are they attention seeking? Quite possibly.
But is it really a problem that your child wants your attention while they are distressed? Don’t we WANT them to know that they can come to us when they are upset? That we will help them and respond to them when they are hurting? That we will meet their needs, and treat them with kindness and compassion?
Your child’s feelings are valid
All of them.
They’re disappointed because you wouldn’t give them a cookie? Valid.
They’re scared to leave you at daycare drop off? Valid.
They’re angry because you asked them to turn off the iPad? Valid.
They’re frustrated because their block tower fell down? Valid.
Who are we to pass judgment on the validity of anyone else’s experience? To decide whether their emotions are worth responding to or not? Whether a person is deserving of our empathy or not?
And we’re taking a huge risk when we attempt to compartmentalise and label our child’s expression of emotion. Because while we are spending time looking for evidence that they may be “manipulating” us, and trying to work out if their emotion is worth responding to, we are missing out on an important opportunity. An opportunity for connection and relationship building.
ALL emotions are worth responding to.
What about behaviour?
A lot of people will read this and have questions about behaviour. In the past I’ve been told this conceptualisation of tantrums is the same as allowing children to behave “like brats”. That this approach spoils children, or that it rewards “bad” behaviour.
But validating an emotion is not the same as validating a behaviour.
We can respond with empathy to our child’s emotion and still hold a firm limit. In fact, we should. I can understand that my child is disappointed about not getting another cookie AND say no to the cookie. Validating how they feel does not mean moving your boundary, “giving in”, or allowing them to behave in ways which hurt themselves or others.
In fact, when we move boundaries in response to big emotions, we do our child a great disservice Because we teach them that we should avoid negative emotions at all costs. That their emotions are so big and scary we should get rid of them immediately.
Instead, it is our job as parents to hold space for those emotions, and to allow them to be expressed safely.
So how should we respond to “tantrums”?
Because all emotions and behaviours stem from a need. The way we respond should not depend on our assumptions about the validity of our child’s feelings. We should assume that their feelings are always valid and important. Because they are.
Our response should depend on what we think is driving the behaviour. What we think our child NEEDS.
All of our children will have different needs, at different times, and in different situations. But the one thing ALL children need, in every situation, is to feel seen, heard and understood.
Children need to know that we understand how they feel, and why. They need to know that they are always safe to express how they feel. That we will always accept and allow their emotions, even when we do not accept or allow the behaviour that accompanies them.
And that means, we focus on connection. When we focus on connection, we can’t go wrong. No matter which type of “tantrum” we think they might be having.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.