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The differences between a tantrum and a meltdown

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The differences between a tantrum and a meltdown

Live concerts are great fun but sometimes too loud for me. When desperate, I’ve stuffed bits of Kleenex into my ears.  When prepared, I’ve used cheap foam earplugs to reduce the volume. Neither solved my problem because they weren’t great at reducing the volume and they muffled the sound. (see at P.S. for a new solution)

While the loud sound reduced my enjoyment, it didn’t cause me pain or overwhelm. I also had the option of leaving the area if it was too much. 

What do you do if a sound – perhaps a loud sound, or a repeating noise, or an ongoing sound – causes you distress and overstimulates your brain?

Worse yet, what if others aren’t bothered by the sound and your difficulties aren’t taken seriously.

Add to that, what if the issue becomes overwhelming, and that overwhelm is treated like it’s a choice that you should ‘get over’ or ‘stop behaving that way’.

Next week, we’ll use auditory overload as an example of sensory overload and look at what you can do about it.

This week, we look at what happens when someone experiences sensory overload - a meltdown - and how that differs from a tantrum.



My child is not giving me a hard time.

My child is having a hard time.

~ a useful mantra when the brain has become overloaded, whether by noise or other sensory issues


 Action Ideas (Ideas to get ya thinkin’. Not medical advice)

Before we begin: a blast from my past. I watched a rat who, when the thirst centre of his brain was stimulated, would drink water until the stimulation was stopped. That stimulation overrode other parts of the brain and body. He probably would’ve hydrated himself to death if the experimenter kept the stimulation on. Our brain determines our behaviour.

That’s important to remember when reading this issue. It’s what differentiates tantrums and meltdowns.



Both tantrums and meltdowns are more likely to happen when the basics of health aren’t fulfilled. By basics, I mean sleep, hydration, food, movement, physical comfort etc. But that’s about the only similarity when comparing the two, other than what an untrained stranger would observe.



  1. It is a chosen action to get the desired result.
  2. Getting the desired result will stop the tantrum.
  3. There is interest in the reaction of others since control of another person is the goal.
  4. The behaviour is calculated and can be altered mid-tantrum, if there is a reassessment of the situation.
  5. It can end quickly.
  6. It's more difficult to predict. Other than the basics listed above (sleep, hydration, etc.), there aren’t physical changes as part of the warning.



  1. It is the result of the overstimulation of the brain. Remember, we do what our brain tells us to do.
  2. Because it is due to sensory overwhelm, the meltdown stops after the brain has returned to normal, which takes time.
  3. Since it’s the result of internal firings, the person is not focused on the reaction of others. Reduction of stimulation is the main focus.
  4. The behaviour is due to activity in a more primitive part of the brain. Not where decision-making occurs. Don’t expect logic or rational argument to work. Talking could make it worse if the discussion increases stimulation. Reduce stimulation, including talking if talking isn’t helping.
  5. It’s slow to end as brain firings reduce slowly.
  6. There can be observable warning signs like red cheeks or ears, behaviour that reduces sensory input (hands over ears, for example), spacing out, and attempts to regulate (repetitive behaviour, the need for more intense movement).

To state the obvious, having a meltdown doesn’t feel good. It’s not a chosen, controlled behaviour. It’s the body’s way of handling too much information.

Think about it this way: You have a tiny bladder. Your friend has a huge bladder. The two of you go out for the afternoon. It’s hot so you both drink a lot of water. Your body says you’ve had too much fluid for your body to handle. You need to release some of it. You can put it off briefly but the longer you wait, the more urgent the problem is for you. You're uncomfortable, distracted and feeling more stressed by the minute. Your friend says everything is fine and can’t understand why there’s an issue. What state are you in? Can you choose to 'get over it'?

We are all built differently and need to honour our differences so we can understand/modify if we choose.

For many, movement helps reduce stress. Full body movement isn’t always possible so fidget items can be very helpful in regulation during those times. Check out what movement and fidget items we have to offer.

I hope you only hear pleasant sounds all week. 😊

Providing calmness & comfort, learning & laughter,

P.S. Thanks to those of you who shared your interest in Vibes hi-fidelity earplugs and cord. They can be viewed here. If you might be interested in InnovAID carrying them, please comment below. Your name will automatically be entered to win a set. 

As I promised, this is my report back after using Vibes at a backyard concert and when jackhammering for a sump pump. 

Backyard concert: The concert wasn't very loud. There was very little difference in the volume with or without the earplugs, but the music was beautifully clear, unlike most earplugs.

Jackhammering: At first, I didn't think they helped at all because the sounds were so clear. Then I removed them. What a difference in the volume! I had a couple of other people try them and they found them equally as loud-sound dampening.

I think if you wore them to a regular concert, you could both clearly hear the concert at a reduced volume and still hear if a friend spoke to you. If that's true, these are remarkable earplugs.

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