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Tantrums vs. Sensory Meltdowns

Many children with whom we work demonstrate maladaptive behaviors. But how do we know what the root cause of these behaviors is, and how do we know how to appropriately manage these behaviors? Sensory meltdowns and tantrums should be treated differently. ---

In this blog post, I will provide some basic information on the difference between tantrums and sensory meltdowns as well as some suggestions for how to appropriately deal with each. This list is by no means exhaustive, and you should consult your occupational therapist for additional information, troubleshooting, and strategies to aid in dealing with behaviors.

Tantrums:

A tantrum is a maladaptive behavior, typically caused by the child wanting an item or wanting to do something/not wanting to do something.

Properties of Tantrums:
  1. Tantrums often focus on getting attention
    a. Is your child stopping for a brief instant to look at your reaction?
    b. Do behaviors increase when you talk to them or give them attention?
    c. Do they decrease if you give them space?
  2. Tantrums stop when you “give in”
    a. For example: You are in the store and your child wants a cookie, has a meltdown when you say “no,” but immediately calms when you become embarrassed and rushed enough to give him or her the cookie.
  3. A tantrum will not hurt the child
    a. During a tantrum, children are aware of their bodies because they are being behavioral due to getting what they want
    b. Tantrums will rarely if ever result in actual injury to the child or self-inflicted harm (e.g., head banging)
How to Deal with Tantrums:
  1. If the child is seeking attention: ignore the behavior
    a. If you are at home: go into another room
    b. If you are at therapy: have a neutral person (e.g., not the child’s therapist) keep an eye on your child while you and/or the therapist step out
    c. If you are in public: remain calm and ignore your child (Note:You will likely get dirty looks for this. Feel free to say, “My OT told me to!”)
  2. Redirect to positive behavior
    a. “When you show me a calm body, we can find a solution/compromise.”
  3. Set boundaries – If you say something, don’t back down
    a. Do not say that your child cannot have a cookie but later give in. This teaches your child to scream louder, hit harder, and make more of a scene because he or she knows that it is only a matter of time before getting the desired item.
    b. Plan ahead! If you are in a hurry, do not set hard and fast rules that you may have to break later – e.g., “I hear that you want a cookie. Let me think about that.” This way, you will not have to back down on what you said earlier if you end up getting the cookie.

Sensory Meltdowns:

A sensory meltdown is a neurological process. It may be triggered by the child wanting and item or wanting to do something, but it cannot be easily solved through “giving in.” Children with sensory differences (including, but not limited to, children with autism), do not want to have a meltdown, but they may not know how to inhibit their neurological system from getting overwhelmed. This is why OT intervention is so important! We can help kids learn the strategies they need to deal with sensory challenges.

Properties of Sensory Meltdowns:
  1. Children in the middle of a sensory meltdown likely do not even realize if there are other people around
    a. If you step out of the room, your child may not even notice
    b. Your child will not look to you to see if you are attending to him or her
  2. Sensory meltdowns do not stop when you “give in”
    a. For example: You are in the store and your child wants a cookie, has a meltdown when you say “no,” but becomes so overwhelmed and upset that he or she may not even notice if you give in and offer the cookie.
  3. A sensory meltdown might hurt the child
    a. You may see self-injurious behaviors, such as: head banging or throwing him or herself down to the ground without regard to the environment
How to Deal with Sensory Meltdowns:
  1. Identify how the child is feeling
    a. “I see you are a feeling really upset, I am sorry you are not happy.”
  2. Identify the solution
    a. “Let’s get your body in a good spot, then we can come up with a solution about the cookie.”
  3. Provide strategies
    a. Deep breaths
    b. Hugs or deep pressure
    c. Joint compressions
    d. Ice play
    e. Swing (if available)
    f. Other strategies, specific to your child

What if I Still Don’t Know!?

Here are some great tips that you can use if you still cannot tell whether your child is having a sensory meltdown or throwing a tantrum that can work to improve behaviors, regardless of the root cause:

10 Strategies for Effective Behavior Management

  1. Get BELOW the child’s eye level when having a discipline/teaching moment – Parents report that they avoided the BIG meltdowns when they did this due to demonstrating empathy: I’m here with you. I’m relaxed. I have empathy toward you.
  2. Connect with emotions BEFORE dealing with behavior: Sooth first. Kids don’t learn in fight or flight. If the point of the discipline is to learn a skill, etc., we need to teach them when they are calm.
  3. Relaxation breathing: Big belly breathing: Use a visual – smell the flowers, blow out the candles. Place a “lovey” or stuffed animal on their belly and watch it rise and fall. Practice when the child is calm, and model the behavior.
  4. Hold and actually extend the moment when a child is feeling healthy guilt: Guilt vs Shame – “You feel badly that you hit your brother. Hmm. What do you think you need to do to make it right?” Guilt helps us to say sorry and not do it again – guilt is healthy. The part of the brain that is firing the guilt needs to grow stronger. We need to let the child know that we accept their apology. Do NOT shame child or punish when the child shows progress with signs of increased empathy.
  5. Consider Movement: Movement can lower the arousal level and shift emotions. Consider setting up designated movement breaks throughout the day. It takes time, but saves lots of time/stress dealing with behaviors.
  6. Consider Playfulness: One example = Play the guessing game – if your kid does not want to put on outdoor clothes, play the guessing game. Have the child close their eyes. You put your outdoor clothes on first and then, without looking, have them guess what item you will put on. Then have them put on an item when you are not looking, and you guess which item they put on.
  7. Instead of denying the child’s feelings, give them a name: Teach emotional growth and skills. “I can tell by your tears that you’re really upset that you cannot keep playing on the iPad.”
  8. Take the “no” out: Listen to yourself – how often are you starting your sentences with “no, don’t, or stop?” For many kids these are trigger words. It encourages them to “run faster, jump higher” or have a tantrum. Taking the “no” out leaves room for conversation and allows our kids to hear what is coming next. Grant the child’s wish and fantasy: Restate what they want, but put your spin on it: “I want a cookie.” “A cookie is a great idea for after dinner.”
  9. When/then versus if/then: Avoid using “if…then” – say “when .. then” instead. This is more likely to give the message that you expect the child to do as you asked.
  10. Question if a consequence is even needed: If the teaching/discipline was done exceptionally well, then the lesson was learned – and guilt was the natural consequence of unexpected behavior. Going to your room should be about re-regulating, not about shame/punishment.

If you are still having challenges in dealing with specific behaviors, consult your occupational therapist! There are a variety of different, successful ways to deal with behaviors, these are just a couple of specific, helpful hints that may make daily routines a little easier.

Resources:
DIAGNOSIS UNDERSTANDING AUTISM BEHAVIORS BEING AUTISTIC ADVOCACY &
ACCOMMODATIONS Is it a Tantrum or a Sensory Meltdown? 4 Ways to Know For Sure! (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2018, from https://autisticmama.com/tantrum-sensory-meltdown/?utm_content=buffer3c992&utm_medium=social&utm_source=pinterest.com&utm_campaign=buffer.

Written By: Laura Boggio, MS, OTR/L,
Occupational Therapist

Tantrums vs. Sensory Meltdowns
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