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Meltdown vs Tantrum

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

I must say, I had never heard of the word “meltdown” until I started working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I suppose that was about 15 years ago. At that time I heard it strictly used to describe the uncontrollable acting out brought on by massive frustration at not being able to communicate with and/or understand the world around them.

These days I hear the word “meltdown” used quite often in connection with outbursts from Neurotypical children. defines a meltdown as:

: an accident in which the core of a nuclear reactor melts and releases radiation

: a very fast collapse or failure

: a very fast loss of emotional self-control

Are these Neurotypical children truly having meltdowns or has meltdown now become the new term for tantrum, but since it’s a “meltdown” it’s okay? defines a tantrum as:

: a fit of bad temper

: an uncontrolled expression of childish anger

: an angry outburst by a child or by someone who is behaving like a child

*They list synonyms as: blowup, explosion, fireworks, fit, hissy ,hissy fit, huff, scene

Nowhere does it say a tantrum is a meltdown.

I suppose I am a little touchy on this topic, as I have seen meltdowns in progress and the person truly needs assistance to get back under control. Sometimes they even exhibit certain signs that tip us off that this person is nearing the point of no return. Once they cross that, “I’m extremely frustrated” line, they truly cannot get back on their own. If they won’t accept assistance, the meltdown needs to run its course and all the observers can do is make sure the person is safe. No, a meltdown and a tantrum are not the same.

One “test” to determine if an outburst is a meltdown or a tantrum:

Give them person what they want. One of these two reactions will tell the tale of the outburst.

  • Outburst stops almost immediately = tantrum

  • Outburst continues = meltdown

Let me leave you with this one thought. If your child is having a tantrum, call it a tantrum. Don’t justify their behavior by calling it a meltdown.

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