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Is it a Temper Tantrum or a Meltdown?

Tantrum or Meltdown

How To Support Your Child in Out of Home Care

The daily life of a parent can be hard work, especially if you’re consistently faced with tantrums or meltdowns- which is often the case for children in foster care. As a foster carer, you may have asked yourself: 

“Is my child’s behaviour normal?”

“Is this a tantrum or something more serious?”

“Does my child need intervention?”


What is ‘normal’ behaviour? And how does this look in children in out of home care?

When we talk about ‘normal’ behaviour, we’re usually referring to what is ‘developmentally appropriate.’ This means, behaviour that is typical for children at a particular age. For example, tantrums are common in two and three year olds, and some defiance in three and four year olds is also normal. That’s because there is a lot happening at a neurological, physical and emotional level as their brain grows and matures.

For children in foster care, ‘normal’ behaviour is a little more complicated to define. Many children who are placed in foster care have experienced separations, trauma, and relational stress that impacts their brain development. This can lead to difficulties regulating emotions, unhelpful coping strategies and disruptions in their help-seeking behaviour.


What is the difference?

A tantrum and an emotional meltdowns are not the same thing. A tantrum may occur when an inconvenience has happened (for example, it’s time to pack away toys). The child becomes frustrated and may be unable to communicate this with words. This type of behaviour is commonly seen in toddlers, but may occur from ages one to five and occasionally in older children. A tantrum tends to be controlled as the child is looking for a certain response.

A meltdown is when a child experiences a complete emotional overload and are unable to cope with a situation. An emotional meltdown is a complete shutdown where your child will not be able to control of their actions. You might see behaviours such as aggression or uncontrollable crying. In a developmental sense, this kind of behaviour is far more worrying and often indicates a need for professional supports.

Regardless of whether a child has a tantrum or meltdown there is genuine emotion underneath these behaviours.


 How to support your child through a tantrum

It can be frustrating if tantrums are happening a lot, and you may even feel anxious about how your child will react, particularly when you leave the house.

Tips for managing tantrums

  • Routines and boundaries need to be consistent. So, try to set up the guidelines before starting the day, pre-empting situations where a tantrum may occur. For example: “We are going to the supermarket today. I am going to ask you to sit in the trolley and help me get what we need. Then, once we have paid for the groceries, you can have your snack.” This helps prepare your child for what is to come, and it sets up an opportunity for them to do as you’ve asked.
  • Be creative in the way you say ‘no.’ Sometimes ‘no’ can be a trigger word for children. You can say something like “we are not going to do that right now, but we are going to do this instead…” and direct them to something else.
  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes. It may not seem like a big deal to us when they want the red car over the blue car, but at that moment it is very important for your child.
  • If your child has a tantrum, stay close by and explain very simply what the situation is. “We need to pack away now, so we can go to our appointment.” You can let them know they can have a cuddle or sit on your lap when they are ready to. Once they are calm, then you can talk about what happened. It’s important to take this time to reconnect, particularly for children in foster care who may not have experienced a trusting adult support them when they have big emotions.

Sometimes, it is okay to give in. Choose your battles! It may be easier to give into one aspect of a situation, for example, “Ok, you can go play in the playground for five more minutes, and then we need to go.  


How to support your child through a meltdown

When your child is having a meltdown, they will feel out of control of their emotions, and in many ways, they are.

Tips for managing meltdowns

  • The best way to help your child through a meltdown is to stay with them (how close will depend on your child’s behaviour and whether it is safe to do so).
  • Avoid saying things such as ‘calm down,’ or asking them to explain what is happening. As their brain is in a survival state (i.e. they are either fight/ flight/ freeze mode), they will be unable to rationalise their thoughts or tell you what’s going on- at least not until they have calmed down.
  • Reassure them by saying, “I am here with you.” Stay with them until the other side of the meltdown, as this will help them feel safe and build trust with you.
  • Try not to take it personally if they push you away.


Is it time to seek help?

For both tantrums and meltdowns, it comes down to the relationship between foster carer and child. Being consistent and emotionally supportive can support your child through a tantrum or a meltdown. If, however, meltdowns are happening regularly, you struggle to remain calm, you feel worried about your child, or it’s interfering with family, school or peers, then professional support may be needed.


Behavioural support at Challenge Allied Health

At Challenge Allied Health, our experienced psychologists work with foster families  to provide information, support and advice on managing meltdowns. We support children to regulate their emotions and behaviour.

Find out more about our therapeutic supports or give us a call on 1800 795 441.


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