Navigating Tantrums and Meltdowns: Understanding Sensory Reactions and Supporting Neurodivergent Children - Happy as a Mother

Navigating Tantrums and Meltdowns: Understanding Sensory Reactions and Supporting Neurodivergent Children


with Pediatric Occupational Therapist Laura Petix



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • Tantrums vs Meltdowns: How to Tell the Difference
  • How to Accept Unpredictability Around Meltdowns
  • The Importance of Repair 
  • The 4 Phases of a Meltdown (and How to Navigate Them)
  • Unrealistic Expectations Around Meltdowns

How do I tell the difference between a tantrum vs a meltdown? Do neurotypical children have meltdowns? How do I support my neurodivergent child through sensory struggles? Can I prevent meltdowns? Parenting young children—especially neurodivergent littles—brings up these questions and more. 

Today, Laura Petix—The OT Butterfly—joins me to chat about all things meltdown-related: how to tell the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum, how to help children through the four phases of meltdowns, and how to manage expectations when parenting neurodivergent children.

The Additional Invisible Load in Parenting a Neurodivergent Child

I can tell the type of day my neurodivergent son is going to have by the way he walks through the door from his room in the morning.

Some days, he’s all smiles and “I love you, Mommy!” Those mornings, I know that unless something comes up, we should have a smooth morning. 

Other days, he comes out of the room stomping and huffing, ready to hit his brothers on the way to the breakfast table. When that happens, I know I’m in for it. A meltdown is waiting to happen—I just have to see what’s going to set him off. 

Parenting him is different than parenting my other two. I have to think about how I word every request. I have to notice that mood when he walks through the door and adjust my own expectations accordingly. And I have to be prepared to navigate a meltdown if, or when, it happens. 

The invisible load of mothering him is different. It comes with a unique set of considerations, planning, need for patience and gentleness (that I often fall short of). His needs require me to show up as an entirely different parent than my other two boys. 

I have learned a lot through my mothering journey with him. So I couldn’t wait to talk to Laura, who openly shares her own journey of parenting a neurodivergent child. 

As an OT, Laura knew all the “right” things to do with her child—from sensory experiences to open-ended play. But that experience didn’t prepare her for having a differently wired daughter. Her daughter had intense meltdowns—to the point where she visited the ER to see if something was medically wrong. 

Through that experience, she has dealt with that additional invisible load herself. But she has also learned more than she could have ever imagined. She believes that her experience has made her a better OT, and a better resource for parents who are navigating these tricky waters to manage meltdowns and sensory struggles. 

I was excited to pick her brain about tantrums vs meltdowns, how to work through and support in delicate moments, and how to reconcile my own expectations with reality. 

Tantrum vs Meltdown: How to Tell the Difference

When Laura’s daughter first started having meltdowns, Laura wasn’t sure what to think. She would chat with mom friends who would all say, “Oh, my child has horrible meltdowns!” Hearing this, she thought to herself, “Well why am I struggling so much with this then?” 

But once she started hearing the way they would describe these meltdowns, as “lasting five whole minutes” she realized that what she experienced was different. 

Some experts lump tantrums and meltdowns together, but most agree that there are distinct differences. 

Tantrums

With tantrums, the duration is much shorter. They typically last less than 10 minutes, and almost never go beyond 20. 

Tantrums also have a clear goal—perhaps your child wants ice cream, or to play at the park for five more minutes. If you meet this goal, the tantrum will likely end. If you hold your boundary but remain responsive and supportive, it might persist a little longer, but your child can still move through it relatively quickly. 

In most cases, tantrums have clear beginnings and endings. Once a tantrum has ended, your child likely bounces right back, ready to move on with the day.

Meltdowns

Meltdowns are a different beast. For one, their duration is longer. Laura has heard of some parents experiencing meltdowns lasting several hours. 

But it isn’t just the time that is different—it’s also the goal. When a child has a meltdown, the goal is less clear. It’s more of an accumulation of unexpected changes or sensory overload. 

Sometimes, you can identify the trigger moment that tips your child over the edge. It can seem like a tantrum in those moments. But the moment that sends a child into a meltdown comes with underlying emotions and anxiety that go beyond the trigger. 

For example, Laura shared that recently her daughter sat at the table and said that the chair was too far. When Laura adjusted the chair, she then said it was too close, and started to work her way into a meltdown. Laura quickly realized that it wasn’t about the chair. If the meltdown didn’t happen then, it would happen soon over something else. It was as if she was looking for a fight. 

I have experienced this with my son as well. It feels as though there is a never-ending moving target—something he doesn’t even know that he needs. Something is building up that needs to release—and he needs to find a way to pop that balloon. 

When this happens, and a child melts down, nothing you can say or do will stop it. It has to work its way out. You can support your child the best you can, but it has to be released. 

Meltdowns also often come with a “hangover” period of grumpiness or exhaustion as your child transitions back into a regulated state. 

Laura pointed out that, while meltdowns are common for neurodivergent children, neurotypical children can and do experience them as well. However, if they are occurring most days, and intruding on your day, it’s probably time to visit a doctor for an evaluation. 

How to Accept Unpredictability Around Meltdowns

When meltdowns happen, it isn’t because you or your child has done something wrong. It’s because something in your child’s brain is happening that neither of you can control. 

It can be frustrating, and difficult to accept. Laura said that this was a journey for her—one of acceptance, of being able to acknowledge that her daughter is more emotional, strong-willed, and sensitive to sensory issues than neurotypical children. 

On the days when she feels like a meltdown might occur, she has to gear herself up to accept big feelings. (She pointed out that it isn’t helpful to just assume a meltdown is coming. Instead, stay positive and prepared.)

We sometimes want to compare our children to other children. I have experienced this myself—sometimes feeling frustrated that my neurodivergent child doesn’t respond to situations the same way as my other children. 

But the hardest comparison comes when something sets him off that typically doesn’t. For example, if brushing teeth becomes a meltdown even when we do it every day with no struggle. 

Laura discussed this as well. She pointed out that we as adults don’t always respond to situations the same way. Sometimes, we’re ready with all the gentle parenting tips and tricks and can respond the “right” way. Other times, we snap or lash out with a Mom Rage moment

We can’t always regulate ourselves—sometimes we’re tired or overstimulated or at capacity. Our children are no different—whether they are neurodivergent or neurotypical. We can’t expect any child (especially those with different brain wiring) to always regulate their behaviour and respond the same way. 

As Laura said, for her, some days are brilliant and others are paralyzing. Regulation is a state—it isn’t fixed. It goes up and down, and we have to come to a place of acceptance around that. 

The Importance of Repair 

Laura also emphasized that in the moments where we do lose our cool and yell or snap as we deal with those meltdown moments, forgiveness for ourselves is important. Respectful parenting is extra challenging when it comes to neurodivergent children. 

But the goal of gentle parenting isn’t to stop meltdowns or alter behaviour. It’s to work on our relationship with our children and develop long-term skills that benefit both you and them. 

As you learn how to apologize, the right words to say, and the moments when your child is more responsive, you can repair to maintain that relationship and model for your children how to take responsibility for their own behaviour. 

Laura said, “My goal is not for her to not have meltdowns or hit or yell or kick—my goal is that eventually, she will know that it’s time to apologize when she’s hurt someone.”

Repair isn’t just to keep your bond strong—it’s also a powerful teaching moment. You don’t have to worry about being perfect. In fact, the moments of imperfection are where your child learns important long-term skills. 

The 4 Phases of a Meltdown (and How to Navigate Them)

I asked Laura if there is a way to prevent meltdowns. I’m sure most parents want to know the same thing. Laura said that meltdowns aren’t avoidable—but we can help lower the intensity and make the situation more successful for our children. 

The best way to manage meltdowns is to understand that there are four phases to navigate:

  1. Before the meltdown 
  2. During the meltdown
  3. After the meltdown
  4. Between meltdowns

Our approach should be different depending on the phase. Before the meltdown, we can try to sidestep major triggers, but that nervous system reset sometimes has to come out. Instead, a stronger approach is to remind our children of the tools and help them reset less intensely if possible. (Sometimes this isn’t going to work, and we have to move onto phase two). 

During the meltdown, safety is the number one priority. Laura suggests creating a destruction zone—an environment where your child can destroy something or hit pillows or find a way to release their feelings through their bodies. Redirecting the aggression is often more effective than stopping it. 

Laura pointed out that the scripts and the language we use during tantrums to narrate and validate the child’s feelings will likely not help during a meltdown—it might even escalate it. She also advises avoiding asking questions or giving directives. Instead, try to reduce stimulation, by dimming lights or turning off anything making noise. 

She also holds her hands up for her daughter to give her two choices—hand one is for space and hand two is for a hug—so she can hit whichever hand she chooses. This gives her a quick and easy way to make a choice and lets her release some of that aggression in a non-violent way. 

After the meltdown is the time to narrate what happened in neutral storytelling language. However, it’s best to give it some time for everyone (your child and you) to cool off. 

And between meltdowns is the perfect opportunity to practice skills and model behaviour. This is when you can explain destruction zones or the hand choices. In a meltdown, a child’s logic mode is offline—it’s not the time to teach new skills or correct behaviour. 

Unrealistic Expectations Around Meltdowns

Part of our journey toward acceptance and support for our neurodivergent children involves understanding how to manage those four phases. But part of it involves letting go of unrealistic expectations. 

We can’t expect our children to not have meltdowns. Their brains need that nervous system reset. We also can’t expect them to be responsive to our scripts or the language we use in the moment. 

Likewise, we shouldn’t expect them to be able to access higher-level language and talk about what’s wrong. Those conversations have to take place out of the moment. 

Finally, we can’t ask our children to have the same capacity in every situation or to self-regulate. We need to help them out, guide them, and give them the tools that eventually they will use for regulation. 

Our children aren’t the only ones who get overstimulated–we do too! Constant noise, chaotic mess, or always being touched can drive moms into sensory overload. Register for our upcoming live workshop, Managing Overstimulation in Motherhood to learn why it happens and the practical tools and skills you need to manage it.

Laura is a pediatric Occupational Therapist in Southern California. She is a wife and mom to a neurodivergent 4 year old with SPD and anxiety. Laura’s passion is educating parents about how sensory processing has a direct impact on learning and behavior. She does this via her social media, podcast, blog, 1:1 parent consults, online courses and programs for parents of kids with sensory challenges.


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