What’s the Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown?

Most of the time we support other moms and not focus on what separates us. Instead, we focus on what brings us together. And normally I’m in favor of that. But, there is something I just can’t overlook. Now, I used to do this also, so I am just as guilty because I didn’t know any better. You live, you learn, you stop doing the things, right? Or at least adjust. Moms, your neurotypical kid is NOT having a meltdown. They are having a tantrum. Now, stay with me here. Yes, there is a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. A huge one.

Your two-year-old wants candy and will scream and stomp and act a complete fool in public. Embarrass you until you either -give in or leave the place in utter embarrassment. If the behavior has a motivation and can end when the motivation is achieved, or can easily be forgotten with redirection, that is a tantrum.

More than a tantrum

A meltdown is much more intense. Now, tantrums and meltdowns are similar in that they are caused by stress. But a meltdown happens when the body is unable to cope with that stress. They completely shut down. They FEEL it- and there is no reasoning, talking or calming that works really. Some days one thing will work, other days that thing will make it worse. Luckily (ha!) it comes with some warning signs-sometimes.

Before my child has a meltdown he will often stim a little more. His stimming is when he starts getting on eye level with cars (or really anything-he’s used a fork before too) and he rolls it or holds it close to his face. That is my cue to get some hustle in my bustle and go. This autism awareness site explains the differences very well too. 

If we are out, we need to get away or it will get ugly. He will become aggressive towards other kids or even himself or me. It can start because the music is too loud, the lights are too bright, he’s overly tired. It can start as a tantrum over a stolen car but then it can quickly turn into a meltdown because he NEEDS that specific toy, as it may bring him comfort when the music is too loud or the lights are too bright or he is overly tired.


I understand the need to vent about our kids, neurotypical or neurodiverse. But when you are venting to a special needs mama, just know that it can be tough to hear. We can relate to you, but unless you are a special needs parent, you can’t relate to us. I’m not saying this to dissuade you from venting because everyone needs that. I’m simply saying know your audience. Try to put yourself in that other mom’s shoes. And understand the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown and call it accordingly. 

As a mom of a special needs child, it can sometimes be overwhelming. But, there are times like the Autism Speaks Walk where I felt completely seen and felt that others understood. 

Brandi Eatman
Brandi Eatman was raised in Ohio before moving to Florida in 1999. She has been married for ten years and has three children. On the weekends, Brandi and her family enjoy being outside and going to all the area beaches, and they are avid college football fans. Brandi is a photographer who loves to read and spend time with friends and family and enjoys her almost daily boot camps. Her guilty pleasures are crime tv shows, tacos, too much cream and sugar in her coffee, and Ohio State football.