Is it a Temper Tantrum or.....?

Have you ever gone out to a mall or a park or a grocery store and witnessed a child that looked like he/she was having an enormous temper tantrum? Some people might think: “Wow, that kid is out of control; I’d never allow my kid to act that way; she deserves a good spanking” OR “I’ve raised kids and mine never behaved in such a manner” OR “That is such a terrible mother; how could she let her kid act that way”.....

What about if an adult marched up to that mother, a mother who also had 2 additional young children in tow-and said: “You are such a terrible mother”.

Yes, this happens to a lot more people than we know.

What the casual observer might not be aware of is that some kids may struggle with a sensory processing disorder, in which they have sensory overload. The result: a “sensory meltdown” which is neurological in nature, and it is different from a temper tantrum. The brain has a hard time organizing sensory information and as a result a child becomes overwhelmed. Sensory meltdowns are a reaction to stimuli or something in the environment that triggers them and are usually are out of the child’s control, whereas temper tantrums are behavioural, have a purpose and develop because they are looking for a certain outcome. With a temper tantrum, Once the goal or outcome is achieved (child gets their way)the tantrum will stop. Not so with a sensory meltdown. It can be caused by being in new situations, too much stimuli, trouble with emotional regulation, difficulty with transitions, hunger, thirst, inability to communicate, or a change in routine to name a few. The child is having a fight or flight or freeze response in his/her brain due to a neurological response, not a behavioural one (as in a tantrum). Their senses are simply overwhelmed. Kicking, screaming, biting, hitting all can be a result. Or, they may do the opposite. It may require such things as a very calm response from the parent, removing the child from the environment, low lighting, or maybe even a weighted blanket as a few examples of some things to try. Each type and helpful response is unique to a child.

When that mother confided in me, I admit that I was so angry and aghast at how cruel people can be (especially towards this mother who was one of the most caring, attentive and incredible mothers that I’ve ever met) that tears stung my eyes. I’m a mom too so I can only imagine how this would feel. But then I immediately went into “let’s fix this” mode, went home, and spent time researching the topic and strategies that might help this mother during future outings as well as suggested further consult with an occupational therapist who can help with this sort of thing. I found a link for some sensory awareness meltdown cards for the parent to hand out in the moment of a meltdown if she was approached again, which simply state the child is having a sensory meltdown, not a temper tantrum, states the difference between the two, assures the onlooker that this child isn’t being naughty, a brat or spoiled, that the child just needs some space and time to calm down because they are overwhelmed, and thanks the onlooker for their understanding. It also has a link to educate people more about this.

In closing, whether it’s a temper tantrum or sensory meltdown, no parent needs condemnation, judgment, stares of shame, or cruel words about their child or parenting skills. A little understanding, compassion and kindness, or even an offer of “Can I help in some way?” goes a long way.


Valerie Cundiff, M.S. SLP (R)

Registered Speech Language Pathologist with the College of Speech and Hearing Health Professions of BC (CSHBC)




office: 354 Tempe Crescent, North Vancouver, BC V7N1E6

phone: 778 867-0395

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