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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is it a meltdown, or is it a tantrum?

Today, while visiting with the older sister of the little girl I care for, a bolt of lightening struck.  She said to me, "Hey Tara, did you know there was a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?"  I said, "Of course."  Her response was, "Oh, well I didn't and my mom just learned about it too." 
That's when it hit me, they probably look very similar on the outside.  I've never considered that a parent would be confused by it, because I can feel whether it is a tantrum or a meltdown.  Things like this are the reason I need responses from moms, family, friends, teachers, etc.  I don't know what you don't know, and you don't know what you don't know.  So you don't know to ask about it, and I don't know to tell it.  But if you give me insights into your daily life, then I will have an idea about what is missing and what info you could benefit from.

Okay.  Enough of the soap box.  Now to the reason for this post.  Yes, there is a very big difference between a meltdown and a tantrum.  They do look very similar on the outside.  On the inside they are polar opposites.  The meltdown is because of energy overload and I have to find a way to release it.  If a meltdown is stifled and not given an outlet, eventually your child will probably develop seizures, may begin showing other physical energy releases like banging his head or getting a very stiff body.  Perhaps all of these things are already happening?  Then he needs the atmosphere in the home to change, or at least one room in your home that is a "safe space" for him to go to.  A room that is arranged according to his energy and his "release valves."  This can get tricky if you have more than one child "on the spectrum" in your home.  It will take some careful observation on your part to see the common ground for each of them and let that be the minimal in the room.  Then maybe each child can have their own corner or something.

A tantrum, on the other hand, is just like it is for any other kid.  Fighting the boundaries...whether testing where the boundaries are, or because a new stage of life has been entered, or maybe it is simply to see if he can push your buttons, or maybe it is because he is becoming more self-aware and beginning to have the ego fight with you.  But whatever the reason, you handle a tantrum the same way you would with any other child.  You revoke privileges, you give a time-out or whatever it is you do with your other children.  It is important you treat him the same as the other children when he is acting out for two reasons.  First, he will know you aren't treating him the same and he will resent you for it and he will push further because he knows he can.  Second, your other children will see that he is not punished as harshly as they are for doing the same thing they do and, again, resentment toward you and toward their sibling.  Just because he cannot speak does not mean he should be allowed to run the house.

The little girl I care for now really tested me the first couple of days.  She covered my body with bite marks, drew blood with her fingernails, and gave me more bruises than I have ever had at one time on my body.  She fought and she fought.  But come tantrum or not, she was going to have the exact same treatment as any other child who was doing the things she was doing.

So, when she did something that was against the rules, I would remind her of the rule and tell her not to do it again and give her some other outlet if it was a meltdown instead of a tantrum (it takes me a few days to know the child well enough to sort out her emotion from all the others around).  If she followed the meltdown outlet, then it was fine.  But if she obstinately kept doing what she was doing, I knew it was a tantrum.  So we went through the drama of getting her to the time-out chair.  Once there, it was a fight to keep her there for more than about 15 seconds.  But we did it.  Now, 1 month later, she knows to go to her chair and does so, usually without anything more than me saying, "You know that's against the rules.  Time for a time-out.  Go to your chair."  Off she walks, a bit of a pout on her face, but she does it.

As you interact with your child, you will come to feel and see the intricate differences between meltdown and tantrum.  Then you'll know how to correct the behavior that needs correcting, and give an appropriate outlet to the behavior that must be allowed to be released.

I also want to address here something that a couple of people have mentioned.  Banging of the head.  It is very common.  It is seen on the outside as a very destructive thing.  If your child is using his hand or fist, let him go to town.  He can't cause any damage with just his hand.  If he is using something that can hurt him i.e. the wall or a cement floor, of course, stop him...but give him a different way to still be able to release.

I pound on my head occasionally.  It is a feeling inside like an immense amount of pressure.  It's like I want to think something, but I just can't because it feels like something is pressing down on my brain.  Sometimes it is a painful sensation as well.  But none of that is quite right.  It's more than pressure and pain.  It can't be fixed by putting pressure on my head.  It needs to be something pounding on my head, and it has to be the top of my head.  It's right in the area where the three pressure points are (in accupressure/puncture), right at the crown of the head. When I pound on my head with my fist it relieves that feeling and the pain.  It almost feels like it is jump-starting something that wasn't working that should have been.  It feels good, really good.  It doesn't hurt in the least.  It is very frustrating, aggravating, and infuriating when someone tries to force me to stop.

Telling me to stop hitting my head when I need to pound on it would be like me telling you to leave your thumb alone after having smashed it in the door.  Yup.  That's almost what it feels like too, now that I think of it.  That is almost the exact feeling, that aching, throbbing, pain.  It stops when I hit my head a few times in just the right spot.  Anyhow, it would be like me taking away the pain killers and the ice and telling you to leave your thumb alone, that you are hurting yourself by using those things for it.  You'd probably punch me and take them out of my hand.  Well....that's what he wants to do.  He wants the pain to stop and you are preventing him from stopping it.

Again, don't let him do it in a way that could actually cause harm.  If hitting my own head weren't working, or if I felt like banging my head on concrete or a sharp corner, I, personally, would be so  grateful if someone who loved me (like a parent or spouse) helped me work the pain and pressure away, just like Temple Grandin liked tight squeezes to work her pressure away.  I would ask them to use only the soft, flat part of their fist--the part you'd use if you were playing hammer--and to give firm, but not hard or angry, repeated pressure to the crown of my head.  The heal of the palm might work as well for me.  Sometimes, for me, pressing isn't enough and I will strike my head on the crown as hard as my body will let me (see my explanation of what my body will let me do a couple of paragraphs down).

If you don't give him some sort of avenue to take care of that pain, it will become more severe and that is when you hear of children causing themselves brain damage and other things.  If he is allowed to relieve the small pain when it occurs, then it won't build up to him causing harm to himself in order to relieve it.

Remember he does throw tantrums just like anyone else.  He also has meltdowns, and those need to be given a proper avenue of expression.  (Like with my little girl I care for, when she needs to release, her very first reaction is to throw things.  So we have instituted the rule that she can throw something as long as it is soft.  But she may not throw the hard toys and books.  This way she can still do what her body needs to do, but there is no danger to those around or damage caused to the home.)  If he's hitting his head, it's because it hurts and hitting really does make it feel better.  It feels so much better.  If he can't cut his head or hit it harder than he realizes (using cement floor or something with a sharp corner, etc), let him have it.

In other words, if it's just his fist or if he's pulling his hair, let him go to town.  Give him free reign with it.  He'll stop when it's no longer needed.  He isn't doing it for attention.  He really needs it.  So let him, unless you see some real way of his being able to be truly hurt.  Next time you worry about how hard he is hitting his head, take your fist and punch yourself.  Notice how your body will not let you punch yourself hard enough to really hurt you?  Our bodies have the exact same instinct.  His body won't let his fist hit too hard.  That's why, if at all possible, his mode of release should be his own fist.  The next best thing is pulling his own hair in that area.  

Occasionally, but very rarely, as I have gotten older the pressure has shown up in other places around my head.  It has only started to happen in the last two or so years.  I think it is because I am forcing growth and change that is causing my brain to have to physically change the way things are set up.  I get more of the "headaches" when I have been steadily and regularly focusing on learning a new thing that I have been told was impossible for an Autistic person to learn, like emotion.  It is painful, but I don't think it is a harmful or bad pain.  When I try to feel out what my body is doing when this happens, it is always the same sort of feeling.  It's as though my body were saying to me, "Don't worry.  Construction is a little painful sometimes.  We had to close down this part of the freeway (neuro-pathway) for a moment so that we could rip up the road to repave and add an exit here.  But it will be done soon and then the pain will stop."

You see, your brain and my brain develop the same way.  The difference is, again, because I am more sensitive to energy I feel what my brain is doing when I am learning something new.  Every brain, in the first few years of life is like a new freeway under construction.  Each new environment we are exposed to or general thing we learn is like adding an exit to the freeway.  The off-ramp is paved and then the freeway continues.  After about the age of 7 or so, the freeway is complete and then the work of side-roads begins.  As we learn new things, if there is already a topic it fits under (exit ramp), then it is easy to learn and we quickly build a subdivision with all kinds of roads winding through it.  If we do not have a topic to relate it to, then the work to learn that new thing is long and arduous (because the freeway has to be partially shut down and ripped up and a new exit ramp has to be built).

These learning experiences are always the times I feel the pain in my head.  It is because I am struggling to grasp a concept that is completely foreign to me and I have nothing to relate it to.  I believe that is why analogies make learning so much easier for me.  The new topic can fit into an exit that already exists (as a symbolism of that topic) and can be at least partially understood.  Then I can take my time when making a new place for it to fit.  When this happens, I generally build an entirely new freeway, kind of like the loop that circles the city.  So amazing things happen because, I learn something new that was "impossible" for me to learn.  Also, because the way I make it permanent in my brain makes it connect to all the other "roads" in my head, I am able to have a view of the topic that is unique to most people and then we are all given more because of it.

Long thought short, the pain is not a bad thing.  It is a good thing.  It means I am learning the thing you are trying to teach me.  Keep trying it is going to connect one day and then you will be amazed at the level of understanding that comes out.

Sometimes the head-butting will be part of a meltdown.  But in either case, the above advice holds true.  That is also another sure sign of a meltdown...I would never hit my head, never, when having a tantrum.  I hit my head because of what is happening inside my body.  The tantrums are because of what is happening outside of my body.

*This is a blog about my own life and my own experience.  If you choose to follow anything written here, you do so without any claim on me for problems or complications that may arise.  I am not a doctor.  I have no degree.  I am not a professional.  This is my perspective and experience, that's all.  If you don't think you should do something on here, then don't.*


  1. Tara, I've been reading a few of your posts today. I've been surprised at how much of it just makes sense to me.
    Just moments ago I came to your post about eyes and came away surprised. I used to look people in the eye every time I interacted with anyone. I don't know why, but I can't do it anymore, and I haven't been able to for like 13 years. I couldn't stand to look at your pictures of your eyes. I had to look away. It frustrates me that I can't look in peoples' eyes, even when I'm talking to them. I've tried to just look do it again, but it's like it's painful. I want to know why! And I want to fix it!
    Anyway, sorry for venting on your blog. I just really wish I could understand.

  2. Christine, there are many reasons eye contact could be hard for you. I get the feeling that it was easier before because you were not as aware of your heart as you are now. Before there were enough walls in place that you didn't feel vulnerable in having eye contact with others. Over the years motherhood, trials, and experience have opened your heart and removed some of the walls. But the big thing lurking underneath it all is still there behind your biggest wall. This is something that cannot be addressed in a single blog post. I have written a book that contains the second- half of what you need, and I am working on the first half right now. I will try to hurry it up, it is a hard thing for me to put into words because I have to keep it so general. I start to right and the next thing I know my mind is wandering down another tangent and I've been typing things that are all fine and true, but not pertinent to point. Pray for me to be able to focus and not get distracted with the tangents. As soon as I even have a rough draft of it, I'll let you know.
    Don't worry about the "vent" on my blog. That's what it's here for. I wish more people would. That's how I know what to write. If you don't share where you are, then I don't know what you are unaware of. :)
    Say "hi" to J. for me. Hugs!

  3. Thank you for this, my three year old son bangs his head and I do try and stop him from doing it because to me I thought he was hurting himself. He only does it against the sofa or with his fist but not very hard and he does it in his pram too especially when out shopping and in the car but will not stop him in future. It does alarm me that if he does not channel his frustration it can cause siezures I did not know that. Things have been difficult he does not talk and I have recently had a baby boy and hes has not taken too well to his new brother mainly because he does not like his brother crying but we did expect this. If my son is having tantrum or meltdown I do put him in his cot he loves his cot and it calms him down so I hope I am doing the right thing. I did try and speak to his paeditrician yesterday about his tantrum and all she advised was to ask other parents on the national Autistic Society Website but your piece has been very useful I still cannot really tell the difference between his meltdowns and tantrums I am just hoping in time he will communicate.

  4. Clare,

    He may or may not communicate with you in the future, but you can learn to read him as though he were speaking to you. It takes work and conscious effort, but he's worth that, right?

    He will give little signs here and there that will tell you whether he is reacting to something internal or external. Generally speaking, if it is an external thing, it's probably going to be a tantrum. It may be because he wants something, doesn't want something, does not want to wait....all kinds of reasons, but they are all in the tantrum column. The little girl I care for was having a tantrum day today. I had a meeting I had to go to, and so I was not there to meet her from the bus, her babysitter was. She was with the babysitter for roughly 2.5 hours. When I picked her up, she was very high energy and had a hard time sitting long enough to get her shoes on. I knew that when we got home there would be tantrums. Now this is a fine line, because the tantrum is almost an expression of a meltdown. But, the difference is how she expresses the overwhelming things inside of her. If she repeatedly breaks the rules, then she needs a time-out. The time-out isn't so much a punishment, as a literal, time out. Time for her to get out of the situation she is in. Time to think, feel, calm down, etc. Then we try it over. I also try to make sure that when she is coming home from a place like that that we immediately head into some of what I call "de-junking therapy." For her it usually is a bath with some soothing piano music. The reasons water is so soothing is addressed in my bathroom post.
    Anyhow, the key is to keep a balance between recognizing what could be causing the behavior and the actual actions of the expression. As I said, if she needs to throw something, I tell her to make sure it is soft. I may even join her. Sometimes her mobility isn't very good and she can't throw the soft thing as hard as she wants hard as a heavy hard object would throw. I'll throw the soft thing to the ground as hard as I can for her. It seems to work vicariously for many children.
    Hope some of this helps.

  5. Tara, thank you for a bit of insight into myself! I too am a headbanger. I use the flat part of my thumb (hand in a fist around the thumb) on that same pressure point. I have done it all my life, and have had people do everything from trying to stop me, to commenting, to giving me strange looks. I understand about the pressure headaches, and love how you explain them. I have just always thought of them as "tension" headaches, but that label just never quite fit. Sometimes the banging (or pulling on fists of my hair) is the ONLY thing that helps.
    Sideline here, but, I sometimes wonder if I may be somewhere on the spectrum...I spend so much time feeling like I am just not like everybody else in some way I just can't understand, can't put my finger on, but stands as a barrier in SO many ways in my relationships. Maybe I am just ranting, but your posts have just resonated with me, made me wonder if it isn't "just me"...
    btw...I love how you distinguish between the meltdown and the tantrum. I have long noticed the difference with my 6yr old who tends to have a hard time processing/controlling her emotions. Having "quiet time" rather than punishment for a meltdown can change our whole day!

  6. Hi Tara

    thanks so much for this post. My son screamed and banged his head (started after he had one of his childhood shots!). He became withdrawn and would no longer look at me and his speech stopped.

    I was an investigative reporter and went to work looking for something that would ease him. I discovered homeopathy and after taking myself for treatments (for 3 major headaches a week) and finding it cured and did no harm, I took him. What I liked about homeopathy was it did not judge or compartmentalise my son, it saw him as he was in totality, without judging one thing as good or another as bad. The reaction to the remedy happened to be that he stopped banging his head and started talking and engaging with me and others. He's 26 now and living in his own apartment and managing his life well. He is able to express himself and work toward self-realisation.

    When he was younger there were times when his tantrums were difficult and yes I adopted your suggested approach of treating him just the same as his sister. While playing with his cousin he was caught cheating at a computer game and his aunty began to explain how his 'special needs' meant he could not be treated the same. Oh yes he can, I said. I explained to him and his cousin and auntym it was no different to if his sister had been caught cheating. He got it and he agreed and he's learned eventually (as do we all) how to temper our behaviour to the mutual advantage of ourselves and those around us.

    Homeopathy is an amazing medicine and holds a mirror up to the patient almost as a symbol that they have been seen and accepted. The remedy actually 'jump starts' the place in us that needs to shift - banging your head is one way but it can have its down sides and may not always work. In my experience (and I was so impressed I became a practitioner) it is a gentler and more effective way of getting things moving than any jump start could be.

    I can really relate to the notion of banging your head - when I was younger I had an extremely severe toothache, it hurt so much I started to slam my knee into a wall to give me a pain which would distract myself from the agony of my toothache. Don't know if that's in any way akin to what you were saying. Unfortunately it didn't have the jump start effect, just the distracting effect.

    Wonderful stuff, keep blogging.

    Love Ann