All parents of children with true sensory processing disorder (SPD) have seen or been part of a sensory meltdown with their children; sometimes on a daily basis and sometimes many times throughout the day. Many parents however, at some point begin to doubt their instincts and wonder if it’s something they are doing to exacerbate the problem, if they are being manipulated, or if their child is using them for some kind of secondary gain. Unfortunately, the answer is you are. It’s often not just a sensory meltdown OR just a behavior, it may be both! It can be helpful at these times, to understand the key differences between sensory meltdowns and behavioral tantrums. Being able to identify a sensory meltdown will help parents intervene more effectively in both meltdown and tantrum situations.

What is the trigger?

Tantrum: Behavioral tantrums often have an identifiable trigger and are tied to frustration and a child not getting their way. Other triggers may be child factors such as fatigue or hunger. Environmental triggers may include being unfamiliar with one’s surroundings, or having to transition from one activity to another, especially if the child was having fun and is being asked to leave or stop the preferred activity. Emotional triggers may include experiences of embarrassment or hurt or being told not to do something, such as take another child’s toy, or hit or even to stay within a given area. These are all experiences that children may not like and they may not have the awareness or the words to explain their upset.

Meltdown: Sensory meltdowns occur in response to specific types of physical input (sounds, sights, touch, movement, smells etc.) or when there are too many inputs at once. Parents may or may not be able to identify the trigger and the physical triggers may bother the child more or less on given days. Alternately, some children with SPD will display negative behaviors during the same kind of activity every day, for ex. when getting dressed, when brushing teeth, when putting on shoes and socks, when being buckled into a carseat, or at the table. But how do we know, when a trigger can’t be identified?

When and how does it stop?

Tantrum: Noting how and when the upset stops is a large clue to telling the difference between tantrum and sensory meltdown. Tantrums typically stop abruptly when the desired outcome is achieved i.e. the child gets what they want, such as a parent’s attention, a toy or a treat, or to leave a certain situation. Tantrums will also stop when a child realizes they are not getting their way but in this case the tantrum stops more slowly or shifts quickly to a different level of intensity, for ex. the child doesn’t want to leave a playdate and screams all the way to the car but as soon as the car starts, the child starts to whimper vs. scream. Another example might be that the child throws himself on the floor in the grocery store because he can’t have the chocolate cereal he wants but he stands up to follow his mother and stops screaming as soon as she turns to push the cart in a different direction. This child may be overstimulated, and he may be triggered by the sights, sounds, and smells of a grocery store, but he just displayed tantrum behavior vs. a sensory meltdown.

Meltdown: Sensory meltdowns may or may not stop when the sensory trigger is removed and the upset often dissipates slowly vs. quickly. A child triggered by a loud sound may cover their ears and start crying or run away and refuse to listen to the parent who is telling them the barking dog has passed. A child with touch sensitivities may kick and scream and flail at mention or sight of going to get shoes and socks and may still be flailing and screaming as they are carried out to the car without shoes and socks on their feet. They may whimper for the rest of the car-ride, even though they are not wearing any shoes or socks. The boy in the grocery store if having a sensory meltdown, wouldn’t notice his mother turning to walk away or wouldn’t stop flailing and screaming when she acquiesces and puts the cereal he wants in the grocery cart.

Is my child paying attention?

Tantrum: One of the biggest distinctions between a tantrum and a sensory meltdown is to notice if the child is paying attention to others. A child having a tantrum remains aware of and responsive to the adult caregiver and the people around him or her. This child will visually reference/look at those around him/her to monitor their response to the child’s actions. We have all seen the child who throws a fit and looks at the parent to see if they are watching. Even if this child has SPD, their awareness of their own actions and the parent’s responses suggests they are not in the midst of a sensory meltdown.

Meltdown: During a sensory meltdown a child will not care who is watching and will not likely be watching their parent for responses to behavior. A child in the midst of a meltdown will likely NOT respond to parent input such as words of encouragement or comfort, suggestions, or verbal or physical limits. This is one strong indicator that a child is experiencing sensory overload.

Children having sensory meltdowns are often displaying undesirable behaviors very similar to temper tantrums and sensory meltdowns are not excuses for poor behavior. That said, being able to tell the difference is the first step parents can take toward learning how to intervene so that the child learns how to cope with sensory challenges.

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