As even the most mild-tempered kids will occasionally lose their crap in the lolly aisle or while leaving the playground, most parents have dealt with a tantrum or two. We’ve all developed our own personal strategies for dealing: Ignoring, giving timeouts or placating. But what if your kid’s freak-out isn’t a standard tantrum? What if it’s a sensory meltdown?
Photo: Ian Turk
For children with sensory processing disorder, stimuli that might be merely annoying to a typical kid — a scratchy tag, loud noises — can be maddeningly, overwhelmingly unpleasant. And whereas adults usually have the experience and resources to deal with the sensory overload (they leave the loud shopping centre, they wear earplugs on the train) children can just… lose it. And that breakdown can look a lot like a tantrum.
It’s important to know the difference, says Amanda Morin, a former teacher and early intervention specialist, writing for Understood.org. “A tantrum is an outburst that happens when a child is trying to get something he wants or needs.” A sensory meltdown, on the other hand, “is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. For some kids, it happens when there’s too much sensory information to process. The commotion of an amusement park might set them off, for instance. For other kids, it can be a reaction to having too many things to think about. A back-to-school shopping trip could cause a tantrum that triggers a meltdown.”
For Judy, a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, distinguishing between the two became easier once she was able to tease out the stimuli that were causing her toddler daughter distress: “She would have tantrums about things she wanted to avoid, and they always had to do with her sense of touch, taste, or hearing, so it was easy to distinguish from a regular tantrum — which is usually just ‘I want to do something and you won’t let me.'”
Morin says: “The noise at the amusement park or the stack of clothes to try on in the dressing room at the mall is sensory input that floods your child’s brain. Once that happens, some experts think your child’s ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. That excess input overflows in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out or running away.”
Understanding her daughter’s sensory processing disorder has helped Judy manage the meltdowns more compassionately. She knows, for example, that things such as nail-clipping, towel-drying after the bath, and changing clothes will be disturbing, and so is prepared to handle the distress that comes with those activities.
Morin suggests taking a child having a sensory meltdown to somewhere quiet and calm, to let them settle down on their own.
Judy says that her daughter, now four, manages fairly well at school — but comes home every day and has a meltdown. “I just let her cry (and stomp) it out. There’s nothing I can do to prevent it or make it stop. I look at it as a healthy release of some stress, and then we go about our day and everything is fine.”
For more information about tantrums versus meltdowns, check out this chart to help compare the signs.