There is a Difference: Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Isabella wanted to craft with buttons. She made herself comfortable in the kitchen and poured the buttons into a tray. As soon as she started sifting through them, we heard a sound.

From the basement stairs behind us we heard…




Hunter came catapulting up the stairs and slammed himself into the table.

“NO!” he shouted.

Isabella was puzzled and asked what he meant. He explained that he didn’t want her touching the buttons. She would use the ones he wanted, he said, to which she replied that she would save them if he told her which ones.

“ALL OF THEM” he shouted, slamming his fists on the table.

Now, I want to pause here and explain that this boy isn’t Hunter. Hunter is quiet and polite, usually lost in thought. He keeps to himself or shares his deep thoughts with us. Hunter laughs at his own jokes and loves to curl up and watch TV or make up stories with Isabella. He is not a kid who screams at us or demands much- usually.

Now, when meltdowns take over, that can be a different story. Hunter is a different person during them. I say he’s “in his rage ball and can’t see out of it”. Isabella can also suffer from meltdowns (she also had one this week) because her ADHD doesn’t allow her to filter stimuli or process emotions appropriately. No impulse control can mean over-the-top reactions to seemingly small things. Hunter’s autism also means meltdowns from being over-stimulated or from nothing we can decipher. Let’s look at the differences- I saw this handy list on IG and wanted to share it here:

Under “Warning Signs” the word being cut off is ‘input’, I believe.

Now, a kid in a tantrum SEEMS unreasonable and out of control, but is actually in control the entire time. They’re looking for a specific outcome: get the candy, go to the movie, stay up later, and so on. You can bargain or threaten a child having a tantrum: Snapping them out of it with sentences like, “If you keep this up, no pizza and movie tomorrow!”

A person having a meltdown has no demands and IS out of control. They’re being completely owned by their emotion. Often without warning, sometimes in public. The child during a meltdown has no demands and bargaining or threats won’t work. They do NOT think, “I shouldn’t have this meltdown because I can see they’re really mad and I remember what happened last time”. They are in a bubble where they don’t remember the past, don’t notice your reactions and fear no harm.

I could tell Hunter that we are selling his entire bedroom furniture and toys and he would continue to have the meltdown. In the moment, the feeling is everything and he doesn’t care about stuff, future rewards, or his own personal safety (or mine). He will yell, hit (himself, furniture, me), or shut down. During meltdowns, something has over-stimulated that child to the point of being locked into losing it- the “rage ball”.

The only way to get a child having a meltdown to stop is deeply personal to that child, I think, although there are common lists of things that do work. For Hunter; sometimes it’s pinning him in with a hard hug, often it’s forcibly removing him from the situation, or talking to him in soothing tones (repeating ‘I know, I know, I know’ seems to work) while cupping my hands over his ears so that I’m blocking some of the outside noises.

It took me years to realize that we should have outgrown tantrums by now. How did I not notice that stories of younger kids freaking out were the most relatable to me? Then, I was told about the difference between meltdowns and tantrums and something clicked. When I did research and found out that autistic kids often experience meltdowns, I started to wonder if our little “tell it like it is, never social, old soul” boy has autism. And, he did. (You can read the diagnosis HERE).

So, back to the story of this current meltdown. Hunter started to hit the table beside the buttons with both fists while yelling at Isabella, “DON’T TOUCH THAT ONE. DON’T TOUCH ANY OF THEM. EVERYTHING YOU DO MAKES ME ANGRY!”

By the time I got to the kitchen, he was still hitting the table with his fists but had gone quiet and his jaw seemed to be locked. When he sets his jaw like that, I know I’m in trouble. He’s deep into the meltdown by that point.

I got there and I told him he had to leave and quiet down in his room, in the calmest voice possible. Instead, he refused and collapsed into dead weight on the floor. When he shuts down, it’s like moving a dead body and I know he won’t snap out of it if I don’t get him to a different room. I told him gently to the move. He said, barely audible, “Can’t. Her face makes me mad” over and over. I ended up having to carry him.

(As an aside, it’s a common known fact that most high-functioning autistic kids can mostly hold it together while out of the house with strangers. A teacher’s “hard day” with them is nothing like mine. Somehow, Hunter can be on his best behaviour during school or appointments but at home he lets his true self ride. It is so frustrating for us, as parents, because it makes us sound crazy when we share stories like this, or, as if we are doing something wrong! When, in fact, it is just that when kids feel comfortable they let it all hang out and know we will deal with it and still be there.)

I scooped him up (lifting with my knees cuz he’s heavy now!) and started carrying him down the basement steps to his room. Hunter did NOT help and was complete dead weight the entire time, just letting his body slump where it wanted to when I shifted. As a person in complete shutdown and still in the meltdown phase, he continued to be unaware of his own safety.

When I got to his room, I laid him on the floor and explained that he must, as a rule and at all costs (he loves rules), stay in his room until I came back to get him.

Then, this momma went to the bathroom and took a million deep breaths. Walking down the steps when the ten minute timer beeped, I held my breath cuz I wasn’t sure what I would find.

Relieved, I found him lying on the floor and reading. I opened the door and I said hi to him, to which he cheerily replied, “Oh, hi”. I bet he doesn’t even remember what he did, since a lot of times during a meltdown, kids will “lose time” like a blackout.

It’s been a long week and I just thought I would share this story. Any moms of autistic kids relate?





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