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Is it a temper tantrum or sensory meltdown?

Little girl covering eyes

The emotional reactions of a sensory meltdown can look similar to a temper tantrum. What you do in response can make the difference between calm and chaos.

How to tell the difference

Sensory overload is exactly that: the sensory system cannot tolerate any more input and a child’s flight/fright/fight mechanism kicks in.

A temper tantrum or sensory meltdown look the same essentially – it’s the cause of the behaviour that’s different and that requires the handling is different, says sensory integration-trained occupational therapist Lourdes Bruwer.

A child has a sensory meltdown after being exposed to overwhelming sensory information (for example, at a children’s party, school outing, concert or a busy shopping mall) and normal disciplinary measures (such as time out, negotiation and reasoning) don’t work. Bear in mind that children react differently to a sensory overload, some become whiney and clingy, others try to run away or escape, others become quiet and withdrawn, while many act out or become aggressive.

Sensory strategies such as calming and soothing rocking, hugging, music and decreasing the sensory overload (for example, by spending time hiding out in a tent) helps to calm a child who is having a sensory meltdown.

Tantrums require consistent firm handling and boundaries. Part of handling a tantrum is talking to your child about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and what are alternative, age-appropriate ways to express frustration.

Generally a child having a sensory meltdown is exhausted physically and emotionally after the episode, whereas a child having a tantrum can pick up and continue with their day unperturbed once the incident has passed.

Sensory meltdowns require sensory smart strategies to help contain and recharge the sensory system so that the child can get back into sync. Being able to detect whether your toddler is having an emotional temper tantrum or a sensory meltdown means that parents have to be intentional and present with their child, reading their cues and being mindful of the events and the environments leading up to the behaviour, says Lourdes. (If you are concerned that your child is unusually sensitive to sensory stimulation, it’s best to seek the guidance of a sensory-trained occupational therapist.)

Ways to tune in to your children and their cues

Being connected to your child within a close bond enables you to recognise and interpret their signals, and be perceptive to their reactions and feelings, reducing both tantrums and over-stimulating environments. Here are some ways to build that bond:

  • Talk and listen. When we are fully focused on our children they feel loved and bask in our attention, let them talk about all the things they care about. Ask gentle questions if they are reluctant at first.
  • Everyday routines like singing a special song on the way to school, a family home evening once a week, or a regular Saturday morning outing to get orange juice and the paper, turn the mundane into a special tradition that brings you closer to your young child. Anything predictable helps them feel secure, and gives them something to look forward to, especially if it’s a special moment just for you and them.
  • Reading time not only carves out focused time for you and them to be together, but it helps start conversations, and invites your child to ask questions and make observations. Spice it up with exaggerated voices, or include your child’s name in the story.
  • Make a date: Schedule a regular weekly date with your child where they can choose the activity you do together. Kids cherish alone time with you. Use the time to have fun, and talk and listen. Building trust is a by-product that opens the door for them to tell you anything,
  • Touch: Some children respond to the language of touch; if your child isn’t a cuddler, find other ways to connect, like chasing him to give him a tickle, holding hands while dancing on bubble-wrap together, or letting her sit on your lap while reading a story.
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