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What is a Meltdown?

K. Pike
K. Pike

Imagine this: a mom picks up her eight year old daughter from school. As the car doors close and seat belts are fastened, stories of recess begin. Then, without warning, this sweet girl begins to cry wildly, thrashing in her seat, biting and scratching herself. The mom wonders to herself, what just happened?

This scenario is a regular occurrence for most parents who have children with special needs. These episodes are now being referred to as a “meltdown” by various medical professionals, educators and parents of special needs children. While the term meltdown is usually used in reference to a child with special needs, typically functioning children, or adults for that matter, may also experience an occurrence from time to time.

Stress may trigger a meltdown.
Stress may trigger a meltdown.

So what is the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum? Most children go through a stage where throwing a tantrum is commonplace. In this stage of development, a tantrum is typically a result of not receiving something that they want. The tactic of a tantrum usually wanes as the child enters grade school. For children who have special needs, physical or emotional, the act of a meltdown is not about using a tactic; it is a symptom signaling that something deeper is happening. This is not to say that children with special needs don’t throw tantrum — they do, and they know how and when to use them. Still, it is important to realize that there is a difference between the two episodes.

A therapist or physician may be able to offer helpful child coping strategies for children who are prone to meltdowns.
A therapist or physician may be able to offer helpful child coping strategies for children who are prone to meltdowns.

A meltdown usually occurs when the child has been under stress, is anxious or is exhausted by the goings-on of the day. Most people learn how to respond to their environment and regulate their emotions. When something unexpected, stressful or negative happens we deal with it and are then able to bring our emotions back within a ‘normal’ range. When a child has a difficult time responding to his or her environment, either due to physical or emotional reasons, it can be difficult to return to a state of normalcy. Once a stress-inducing event has happened, the child is unable to regain a state of emotional equilibrium. For children with special needs, a stressful event may be something simple, for example, the light might be too bright or the volume of the classroom might be too loud. Each event and reaction continues to build throughout the day. The emotional state of these children can often resemble a roller coaster ride that never comes to a full and complete stop. Once a child is not longer able to hold it together, the meltdown ensues.

Children with special needs are prone to "meltdowns."
Children with special needs are prone to "meltdowns."

So, what can you do if your child is experiencing meltdowns? Become a detective. Take note of when the meltdowns occur. Look for patterns and triggers. Take note of the activities they are engaged in and the time of day or night. Also consider what foods have been eaten throughout the day. Once you identify the triggers, avoid them, as much as you can. Talk to a professional who can help teach you and your child coping strategies. Perhaps most importantly, be patient, and remember, you are not alone.

Discussion Comments


Tantrums are not meltdowns; the two are not synonymous, I have a SN child and he can throw a great tantrum, and those are easy to deal with, but a meltdown is frightening. To get him back under control, I have to wrap him in a sheet and pin him while he thrashes as his whole being goes out of control.


I wonder if meltdowns are also a sign that something is not right at home.

There were a lot of family problems as my brother and I were growing up. My parents couldn't get along and fought often, usually right in front of us. I absolutely agree that each child is very different and reacts to the same situations in different ways.

I was a very quiet child, kind of too quiet actually, whereas my brother was exactly the opposite. My mom had lost a lot of weight during my brother's toddler years, because he was always on the verge of a meltdown and required so much care and attention. I'm pretty sure that this was my brother's reaction to the stressful and unhappy environment of our home.


My niece is generally a very well behaved, quiet toddler who does not have any meltdowns unless she is in a loud and crowded place. We noticed that especially in shopping malls and large stores she starts to feel kind of scared and vulnerable and just has a bad mood in general.

The other day, she was doing just fine, until we ran into an acquaintance who pinched my niece's cheeks. She started screaming and crying after that.

Thankfully my sister is so good at comforting my niece in these situations. She speaks to her in a low voice and tries to affirm that we understand her. My niece also has a couple of toys that immediately help her relax and calm down. My sister carries them around no matter where we go, they really help.


I have witnessed this kind of meltdown before with my friend's special needs child.

I never really understood what was happening, because she always seemed fine and happy, and then all of a sudden she wasn't anymore.

My friend tried to explain it by saying that it just happens sometimes when something upsets her, but since I didn't notice anything upsetting I still didn't really understand.

I want to be there for my friend, and supportive as much as possible. It's much easier to do this when I have an idea of what is going on and why. Thank you for explaining this.


My daughter has what I have always called a meltdown when we are out somewhere and she is very, very tired. Usually it's when it is way past bedtime, and we are out for a holiday or a special event.

She will be playing and completely fine, and then all of a sudden she loses it, and starts crying and screaming, kicking her feet, and refusing to listen.

She is not a special needs child, but I still would consider this to be a meltdown, due to exhaustion.

Although, now that I think about it, the change in her attitude is still usually triggered by her not getting something she wants. So, maybe it still qualifies as a tantrum, not a meltdown, that is a result of being incredibly tired.


I didn't realize there was a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. I thought they were one and the same. However, I don't have a special needs child. My son has always been one to throw tantrums though, when something doesn't go his way. He's very good at it. I always used the words interchangeably.

I can now usually tell what has triggered his tantrums, just like watching for meltdown triggers. They happen when he is tired usually. Or stressed out about something. He doesn't just randomly, and without warning, have a meltdown though.

Now that I know the difference between the two, I'll be careful to only say that he is having a tantrum, or throwing a fit. I won't use the word meltdown anymore, because I now see that it is different.

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    • Stress may trigger a meltdown.
      By: Ilike
      Stress may trigger a meltdown.
    • A therapist or physician may be able to offer helpful child coping strategies for children who are prone to meltdowns.
      By: Jaren Wicklund
      A therapist or physician may be able to offer helpful child coping strategies for children who are prone to meltdowns.
    • Children with special needs are prone to "meltdowns."
      By: Erick Skydive
      Children with special needs are prone to "meltdowns."
    • Typically functioning children may also experience meltdowns on occasion.
      By: Alex Yeung
      Typically functioning children may also experience meltdowns on occasion.
    • A person feeling overwhelmed by life circumstances might have a meltdown.
      By: kmiragaya
      A person feeling overwhelmed by life circumstances might have a meltdown.