“By Sanika Natu, M.A Clinical Psychology”
As a parent or a caregiver of an autistic child, you might’ve experienced anger outbursts or overwhelming bouts of emotionality in your child. These episodes can be easily mistaken for temper tantrums, while in reality, they may be a response to overwhelming sensory inputs that your child is trying to process.
It is important to know and recognize the difference between tantrums and sensory meltdowns so that you can provide your child with the proper support that they need.
Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent distinguishing factors between temper tantrums and sensory meltdowns –
An Angry Outburst vs. Feeling Overwhelmed
The APA dictionary of psychology defines a temper tantrum as a violent outburst of anger involving behaviors such as screaming, kicking, biting, hitting, and headbanging. The episodes are usually out of proportion to immediate provocation and sometimes regarded as an expression of accumulated tensions and frustrations.
On the other hand, sensory meltdowns are caused due to issues in sensory processing. When a child’s senses are overwhelmed due to bright lights, noise, crowds or touch, it might cause the child to react with extreme emotionality due to confusion or anxiety.
The Role of the Reward System
Tantrums are maintained by rewards. A tantrum might be triggered by situations wherein your child’s demand remains unmet, for example, not getting access to a favorite toy or having been told that it’s time for bed when he wishes to watch T.V. Situations like these might spark vehement emotions in your child that lead to temper tantrums.
The anatomy of a sensory meltdown is completely different from that of a temper tantrum. A sensory meltdown is not maintained by the reward system. A sensory overload episode will not dissipate when your child receives attention or a particular need is met. It will only disappear when the overwhelming stimulus is removed.
Usually Goes Away After Toddler Years vs. Lasts a Lifetime
While meltdowns can occur throughout the lifespan of an individual, tantrums are more likely to subside as the child grows up.
Issues with Emotion Regulation vs. Issues with Sensory Processing
Temper tantrums occur as a result of not being able to express anger or frustration because the child might not be equipped with appropriate ways to express what they are feeling. In other words, tantrums are said to be a result of issues with emotional regulation.
Sensory meltdowns occur when your child has difficulty with receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses. This leads to a lot of confusion and anxiety within the child and thus causes him/her to react outwardly.
What Should You Do in Case of a Sensory Meltdown?
Learn to identify triggers
The triggers for sensory issues differ from individual to individual. It is important to understand the circumstances and environments that cause your child to feel overwhelmed so that they can be altered according to the child’s needs.
Find a safe space
When a meltdown is in its beginning stages, there are chances that it can be averted. Once you notice the beginning of a meltdown in your child, getting her out of the stressful environment and finding a quiet place for her to regroup might help in averting the meltdown.
Ensure your child’s safety
Sensory meltdowns are completely out of the child’s control and sometimes may cause the child to hurt himself during the episode. Ensure that any objects that might cause harm to your child are removed from his vicinity.
Empathy is the most powerful tool you could have with you. Let your child know that you have her back and that you understand how difficult it must be for her to go through an episode like this. Verbalizing your care and support for your child will surely help her feel comforted and safe.
Since tantrums and meltdowns are not the two sides of the same coin, different techniques need to be employed to deal with them effectively.
Correctly identifying whether your child’s anger episodes are due to sensory overload or an unmet need would be a promising first step in effectively handling or even preventing the occurrence of future episodes.
Know that it will take time and lots of patience from your side to put the appropriate strategies in place that work for you and your child – so don’t get disheartened for not getting it right the first few times.
It can also be easy to confuse the two– because reading up about it and experiencing the situation in real life are two completely different things, so don’t hesitate to consult with your child’s therapist or clinician in case of any ambiguities.
Lastly, but most importantly, remember that the occurrence of either of these in your child in no way makes you a bad parent.
“Sanika Natu has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and has experience in working with children.
Sanika is passionate about destigmatizing mental health in India, and her work in that area includes a study on emotional empathy, resilience and mental well-being among young adults, besides writing articles for iSmartmoms.”