Tantrums Versus Meltdowns. Why I Choose To Call Them “Meltdowns.”

After writing and sharing this post, which made me feel vulnerable, I was very taken aback by a couple of uncompassionate responses by people I never thought would have such a reaction. They were mothers of children with Autism. They were quite upset that I had used the term “meltdown” to describe my loss of control. They had said that I had had a “tantrum” “over not getting my way.”

Needless to say, I was quite confused and bewildered by their responses. So were a number of other gentle parents. The argument these two moms tried to use was that only people with Autism are allowed to have meltdowns, and everyone else has tantrums and can control themselves.

I won’t get into how wrong it is to tell an adult who chose to share about her embarrassing episode in the hopes of reminding everyone that meltdowns happen to even mature adults that she had a “tantrum,” except to say that it is wrong.

I will explain that as an early childhood professional, I do have some knowledge of and experience with children with Autism and other sensory issues. These children can, in fact, have very intense and even violent meltdowns that can last for hours. Some of these meltdowns are triggered by sensory overload such as bright lights, too much noise, clothing that is uncomfortable, and having too many people nearby.  These meltdowns are totally uncontrollable. 

But, typical children have uncontrollable meltdowns too. A meltdown is when we lose total control over our emotions for whatever reason. Tantrums are the same thing. Only when most people hear the word “tantrum,” they picture a child trying to “manipulate” us in order to “get his/her own way.”  Even the moms complaining about my terminology said it was to “get my own way.”

In reality, when I lost control of my emotions that night, I had no thought of “getting my way.”  My thoughts were not coherent in that moment.  I was still grieving. I had just watched my husband and his sister bury their mom a month ago that night. I was dealing with my own grief. I just wanted to enjoy the rest of my time with my mom and her boyfriend before they left for home six hours away.  What I truly wanted was for my mom to live closer and for the grief I was experiencing to go away. I knew acting like a fool wouldn’t allow me to “get my way.”

That’s the thing. People witnessing a meltdown have no clue what is truly going on. They see a “bratty” child throwing a fit over “not getting what he/she wants.”  They look at the parents begrudgingly for not “controlling and spanking that brat.” They call it a “tantrum.”

What they don’t see is the child having a hard time. The child may be overtired, hungry, thirsty, getting sick, going through major transitions, being triggered by something sensory related, and/or trying to learn how to cope with a major, to him/her, disappointment. The brain goes haywire. He/She loses control. 

Yes, before a full blown meltdown, people can use coping skills. We can prevent some meltdowns by validating children’s feelings and giving them ways to express themselves as well as meeting needs.

But once anyone enters a full blown meltdown, it’s over until the brain allows them to calm down and regain control. The only appropriate response to anyone experiencing a meltdown is compassion and empathy.

The reason why I stopped using the term “tantrum” to describe children’s loss of emotional control is the negative connotation of the term. Anyone familiar with me and my work knows that I’m trying very hard to get society to see children in a positive light. To help everyone understand the development of young children. And for Christians to view and treat children as the blessings that they are. The term “meltdown” is more respectful.

I don’t care who you are, how old you are, if you have special needs or not, we all have meltdowns. Life gets hard. It will happen. Let’s not judge children or adults. Let’s assume there is always a deeper reason for the meltdown. And let’s not say that one group has “meltdowns” and the other group has “tantrums.”  Jesus tells us not to judge others. Besides, Jesus had a few meltdowns Himself in the Temple and in the Garden of Gethsame. 

May we treat all children and adults with compassion and respect!

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The Brain Overload During Meltdowns Is REAL!

I was recently reminded that the total brain overload and loss of control in children during meltdowns is very real! Why? Because it happened to me!

I’m 34 and was recently at a public place with my husband and some other family members. At this place, I was treated disrespectfully.

Now, due to my severe cerebral palsy, people often treat me as a child or a person with a mental disability. Usually I take it in stride. I never make a scene in public. But, unfortunately, this time was different.

Instead of just brushing this person off and moving on, I lost it and yelled and said things that I regretted as soon as my brain came back under my control. My husband and family were trying to calm me down but my brain was stuck in “fight or flight” mode.

Looking back, it was weird but I had truly lost control of my impulse, self-control like young children do. My brain just got stuck. Usually I can talk myself down and use self-control. Not then.

After a few minutes as my brain came back to me and God gently convicted me, I realized I’d REALLY blown it. I wanted to disappear or run out. All I could do was look out the window and cry. I couldn’t stop crying.

Thankfully, my husband got me out of there, but not before I willingly and on my own accord, apologized to the person I had yelled at. The person graciously accepted my sincere apology. Of course, I prayed and asked God for forgiveness as well.

Once we left, I also apologized to my family. I felt awful that I acted so horribly. I still beat myself up over the incident even though weeks have passed since the incident occurred.

If you have been reading my blog recently, you are aware that my husband and I are grieving the loss of his mom, to whom I was quite close. It has been a rough few months for us. Looking back on this incident, it is obvious that grief played a major role in my very embarrassing public meltdown.

After all, I had never done this before in my life!  No, grief is not an excuse for my inappropriate response, but it is a good reason.

My point in telling this embarrassing story that I wish I could forget is that I think many adults think that children can control themselves in a full blown meltdown. They believe that children are just trying to manipulate us into giving them their way.

I can assure you from my incident that children absolutely can not control themselves during meltdowns. The brain gets overloaded with stress hormones and they truly lose control. Getting angry, yelling, spanking/hitting, shaming, or otherwise punishing them will only keep their brains in this heightened stress state longer. Had my husband and family scolded me or punished me, it would have only escalated things. Instead, they spoke calmly and offered comfort which allowed my brain to get unstuck in order for me to calm down and make things right. My tears became tears of godly sorrow for messing up.

When our children are in the throes of a meltdown, the best thing we can do is speak quietly and calmly to them and offer comfort until their brains come back under their control. The “fight or flight” response is very real and extremely powerful. The sooner we help them get out of that mode, the sooner we can teach them healthy calming and coping techniques to prevent that from happening most of the time as they grow.

We can also teach them that there are times throughout life where the stress and pain is too much for them to bear and they may get stuck and make a complete and utter fool of themselves, but God and we will be there to support, forgive, and help them through it.

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