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Tantrums vs Meltdowns: What Does Sensory Processing Have to Do With It?!

Growing up, I was a pretty chill child. Maybe it was because my mother was extremely laid back? Or maybe it was because I was an only child who didn't want or need for anything? Or maybe it was a combination of factors? Who knows? But now, that I'm a 30-something medical professional who has practiced pediatric occupational therapy for 13 years, I'm realizing that even though I wasn't one to have tantrums or meltdowns as a child, I certainly had my share of sensory characteristics and preferences (or more like non-preferences). For example, my mother use to love to dress me in frill and lace when I was a little girl. You know, the big, lacy, frilly socks, tights, and dresses that were the itchiest garments ever created?! I can remember me softly crying on Sunday mornings at the sight of my outfit pressed and laid neatly on my bed. As a matter of fact, the thought of it now makes my skin itch! It was unbearable! But for some reason, I was able to endure it, for the duration of Sunday School and the two-hour church service that would follow. Then there's the debilitating effects of being a passenger in a moving car that still haunts me today and the disgusting smell that lingers in my nostrils from a glass of milk, preventing me from drinking it- ever! Or the fact that now, as an adult, I'm ashamed to admit that I use half a roll of paper towel because I can't stand for my hands to be messy when I cook. But even with just these few "issues", I don't recall ever melting down, so to speak. Constant scratching and a vomit or two, yes, but never a full-on meltdown. However, this is not the case for many children, and even adults, who are genuinely impacted by their sensory processing characteristics thus often leaving them with no choice but to melt-down.

Container with cartoon milk carton with pink bandaid with tongue sticking out
Yucky Milk


So, did you know that in the medical world, we believe that there's a difference between a temper tantrum and a meltdown?

No? Well let my explain.

A temper tantrum is typically a purposeful outburst that's associated with frustration and linked to an unmet want, need and/or desire. Although adults are quite capable of having temper tantrums (shame on us), temper tantrums are typically seen in young children who are learning their emotions or individuals who have difficulty communicating their wants/ needs.

But meltdowns, they're something different, particularly sensory meltdowns. Even though some meltdowns do indeed start off as a temper tantrum, a sensory meltdown is not considered purposeful and is ultimately a response to an uncomfortable/unpleasant somatic, or sensory experience (e.g. sensory overload). And did you know that when experiencing a sensory meltdown, a child has little to no control over their bodies in that moment?

Let me dig deeper.

Let's say that your precious little one wants to play with their favorite toy after seeing it in the basket you hid it in earlier that day. You gently say no as you tidy up the tornado of toys left on your family room floor. Your little one continues to request the toy and you, in return, continue to gently say no, now providing an kid-free explanation as to why (e.g. maybe it's lunchtime). Then all of sudden, at the sound of that last and final gentle no, your innocent little human something like belly flops to the floor and starts kicking and screaming in an Looney Toon type fashion. You try to ignore the madness but the noise is unbearable after like 10 minutes (well actually more like 10 seconds). So you give in, you give your child the desired toy, and voila, all is well in the world!

Buuuuut... that would not be the story line in the case of a proper meltdown, especially a sensory meltdown.

Picture this...

Same scenario- there's a toy, your kiddo wants it, you gently say no, your kiddo still wants the toy, you repeatedly explain why he/she can't have the toy (it's time for lunch, remember), but the kicking, screaming, and flopping about has exceeded 5 minutes and your little human is inconsolable. By this time, not only are they "out of control", but they are also now exhausted and beyond hungry (you know children tend to ignore their internal senses, but that's another topic for another day). This situation here ladies and gentlemen is now a tantrum turned meltdown.

Or consider this...

You and your family are out on a sunny Summer day for a little adventure to get ice cream. While visiting your local dessert parlor, there's a celebratory event in action so there's a few more patrons than normal, and an array of affixed balloons swaying from chair backs. Your little one, who tends to have some sensory characteristics, is already on high alert from the extra noise, smells, and sights and has been since you entered the place of business. But then, the unforeseen happens- a couple of balloons are popped by another kid who just couldn't resist! Then instantly, your little one's sensory tank just hit overflow and he/ she is now kicking and screaming as their little hands are plastered over their ears. Nothing you are saying or doing is helping as strangers stare- some in judgement and others with empathy. You eventually have to carry your little human out of the parlor which may or may not make things worse but you're left with no other option.

Now that ladies and gentlemen, that's an example of a meltdown as a result of sensory overload, not directly linked to a tantrum. And can you believe that this is just a glimpse of what we OTs know as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD affects the way so many children exist within their day to day environments and it makes new environments, transitions, and sometimes otherwise positive experiences (e.g. the first day of school or birthday parties), negative (unpleasant) experiences. It is important for us parents, carers, teachers, and support workers to understand at least the basics of sensory processing disorder so that we can better nurture our children into happy little beings.

Yes, Sensory Processing Disorder can be defined as a disability or illness because it can impact a child's mental, social, and emotional development. But it can also be viewed as the way a child prefers to play, learn, explore, engage, and

interact. For example, a child who craves a variety of sensory inputs would absolutely be in kid heaven at an amusement Park! Or a child that is quite sensitive to loads of sensory input may tend to prefer to read during free time rather than play. So no, not all sensory processing characteristics or responses impact young lives negatively, or in some cases, traumatically.

In short, at least for now, Sensory Processing Disorder is real and so are meltdowns. Not all kicking and screaming episodes are a result of a "bratty" kid not getting their way. So let's learn to stop and acknowledge our children's sensory characteristics so that we may nurture their sensory characteristics.

Remember- we all live and learn differently.

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