Did you know there is a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown? Do you know what that difference is? 

Dr. Emily Upshur, from Upshur Bren Psychology Group, is back to answer those questions and help arm parents with the tools they need to best support their child through each. We’ll discuss what is happening in your child’s brain and body when they’re dysregulated, why these aren’t manipulative behaviors, and address the misconception that parents need to ignore bad behavior as a means of not reinforcing it. 

And if you want to equip yourself with the most effective tools to reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of tantrums, check out my course The Science of Tantrums: How to help your child get back to a place of calm connection – without yelling, giving in or making it worse. Go to drsarahbren.com/tantrums to sign up and learn more!

The difference between tantrums and meltdowns

Dr. Emily (00:00):

This is like babies crying is their communication toddlers. And even a little bit older children, tantruming is their way of communicating that they’re dysregulated and they need a little bit of help with that.

Dr. Sarah (00:16):

Do you wish you knew exactly what to do before during and after your child’s tantrums? Not just to get them to stop, but to stop in a way that actually benefits their development, their mental health and their relationship to you. That is exactly why I made The Science of Tantrums. A highly targeted framework created by me, a clinical psychologist and mom of two toddlers, to help you understand what exactly is happening in your child’s brain and their body, when they have a tantrum and I’ll teach you the most effective tools to reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of dysregulation over time. And because it’s a framework, not a one size fits all script, it allows you to meet your own child exactly where they are at any given moment, no matter how big their dysregulation gets. Over my 12 years of clinical experience, I have honed strategies that I have seen work with everyone from developmentally typical children, to those with some of the most severe cases of behavioral and emotional disorders. I know this works because I’ve seen it work time and time again. To learn more and to sign up for the science of tantrums, go to drsarahbren.com/tantrums. That’s drsarahbren.com/tantrums.

The Science of Tantrums with Dr. Sarah Bren

Dr. Sarah (01:39):

Tantrums, meltdowns pitching a fit, whatever you wanna call when our kids get to that point of hysteria, it can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and under prepared. Dr. Emily Upshur my partner from our joint group practice Upshur Bren Psychology Group is back today to address a question that we both get asked a lot. What is the difference between a tantrum and a melt? We’ll share our thoughts on what sets these two things apart and offer you strategies for supporting your child through all levels of their dysregulation.

Dr. Sarah (02:15):

Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two in this podcast. I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.

Dr. Sarah (02:49):

Hello. Welcome back, Emily Upshur. I am so glad to have you here today to answer some of our listener questions. And this is one that I just get in my DMS constantly and in comments, which is what is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

Dr. Emily (03:09):

Yeah, I get this a lot too. And I think we sort of, as parents debate back and forth about this as well. So I’m so excited to be here and talk about these differences or you know, how we approach these things.

Dr. Sarah (03:21):

Yes. so it’s really interesting too, when we’re talking about tantrums and meltdowns, because just like we were talking a little bit before we hit record, but this idea that there’s a lot of difference in the field on what is actually the difference and people have, there’s a lot of nuance to it and a lot of different opinions about it. So I think our goal today is gonna be really just to lay out what a lot of, sort of the mainstream understanding of tantrums and meltdowns are, and maybe where we might actually even differ from that mainstream understanding a little bit and what parent can actually do to help both of these kinds of situations.

Dr. Emily (04:05):

Yeah. I mean, I think we can start with tantrums cause I think that that’s sort of right out there with, you know, a certain regularity, like everybody knows a child who’s had a tantrum. And I think, you know, some of the more, you know, colloquial understanding of tantrums is that they’re, some people think they’re a little bit more like milder outbursts, where the child might have some control and some even think like, oh, it’ll just sort of come and go and it’ll go on its own. And I actually think of tantrums a little bit differently than that. I think of tantrums a little bit more, I think they’re developmentally very appropriate. So I think it’s really important to come out of the gate saying that. Kids are supposed to have tantrums. Tantrums are part of growing and, you know, learning about your environment, testing your environment, testing the limits, and also about self-regulation like how, how self-regulated you are in that moment. And of course that changes over time, but we expect younger children to have tantrums because they don’t have the tools for self-regulation. And they’re trying to test those limits about how much control they do have themselves, right? Like how much control do I have over sort of self-regulating right now in this moment.

Dr. Sarah (05:19):

Yeah. And even how much control do I have over my environment right now in this moment? Like, how much control do I have to get this thing I want? How much control do I have to make this thing I don’t want go away.

Dr. Emily (05:29):

Yeah. Yeah. And I think we, I think it’s also important. We didn’t say, we haven’t talked about this, but I think it’s, it’s also important. Kids have like an epic loss of control and that’s supposed to be what it is, but they have very little control over their lives. You know? So as an adult, if you’re feeling a little off, you may just retreat and like cope, right. Or do something for yourself and kids really don’t have those options. And so you do see a lot more of these tantrums or, you know, meltdowns as we’ll get into in a bit because they’re really trying to figure out how to self-regulate within this very structured or contained or limited environment that you have as a child.

Dr. Sarah (06:08):

Yeah. And I think this is a very interesting way that you’re, you’re saying, cuz in my mind, I’m like they’re trying to get the thing that they want in that moment that that’s their driving force. And you’re saying they’re really trying to self-regulate in this moment. It makes me realize for a child self-regulation actually can be explode, explode to release this feeling that I can’t get out of my body because I can’t, I can’t manipulate my environment to get the thing that I need would turn this feeling off. Like I’m thinking of an example where like, you know, I poured the orange juice in the pink cup and the purple cup and my daughter took the pink one and my son got the purple, but he wanted that pink one. And now he’s not getting what he wanted because I’m not going to take the cup away from my daughter and give it to him. He wants that cup. He can’t have that cup. The feeling is of frustration and anger is welling up inside of his little body and it’s too much. And he doesn’t have that. Like, you know, like you were saying, those grown up skills to say, maybe I can ask for the pink cup for my dinner tonight. Maybe I can do something else. Maybe I can think about something that makes me happy. Like whatever it is, maybe I can go away and take a couple breaths in the living room and come back to the kitchen, whatever it is. He can’t do that. So what does he do with that big ball of anger? The actually the best way for him to self-regulate in that moment is to push it out of his body to release it. And that’s the tantrum.

Dr. Emily (07:41):

Yeah. And I mean, I think that that’s exactly right. And, and some of the things you’re talking about, some of the things you just mentioned are really what we call executive functioning. Let’s talk a little bit about brain science, right? These are executive functioning skills and those skills are distress tolerance, like, right. Like how do you live with something you don’t really want to, but gonna have to sort of hold onto impulse control, right? Like how do you not react with your first gut reaction? I’m sure a lot of us would love to do that. I always joke that, you know, childhood tantrums over exact examples, like you are mentioning, Sarah are, wouldn’t it be, wouldn’t it feel good as an adult every now and again, to just like really let it rip cuz you didn’t get what you wanted, you know?We don’t do that because our brains are further developed. And so I think it’s really important when we see our children in these states to think of it a little bit, like with a little bit more empathy in that way. Like that there is an immense lack of control of their ability to, to self-regulate and this is their attempt of getting it out of them. Maybe that’s onto you, you know, that’s our role as parents to be that container. And then we can help them co-regulate after that. But that they’re really trying the best that they can. This is like babies crying is their communication toddlers and even a little bit older children, tantruming is their way of communicating that they’re dysregulated and they need a little bit of help with that.

Dr. Sarah (09:06):

Yes. Yes. And then so, but then the meltdown, how was that different than a tantrum?

Dr. Emily (09:14):

Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I, you know, I really think of a meltdown as a true lack of control, like a loss of your, your states, right? Like a loss of your ability to self-regulate in a more profound way than a tantrum. And I often say meltdowns are more impacted by physiological stressors. So if your child is hungry or tired or doesn’t feel very well that those can, not to say that that can’t contribute to tantrums, but it seems, it appears more often in meltdowns in my, and how I view this. And it can be very common to sort of like put these things on the same, continuum. But as we talked before, I think meltdowns are, are almost past the point of intervention at that moment. You’re worth a tantrum. There’s a little bit of a window in to co-regulate as a parent. And that’s not to say you don’t try to co-regulate during a meltdown, but it is important that it’s harder. You sometimes you just have to survive the meltdown. That’s how I think of it. You just kind of have to weather that wave, that storm is gonna come and just like anxiety, you know, it’s gonna plateau and then it’ll eventually go down and then, then you can get back to a place of intervention, a bit more of an intervention. Ubut I do think of a, of meltdowns as even, you know, we can talk about volatile and how volatile any of these things are. But I think of as a complete loss of control these meltdowns.

Dr. Sarah (10:49):

Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s, for me seeing that meltdown in that way and seeing it as kind of like, it’s like a tantrum, but further past the point of no return gives me as a parent, a little permission to say to myself, like, all I need to do right now is just be a calm presence. I don’t have to do anything. Whereas like with a tantrum, I might have a more direct intervention. Like I might be trying to offer some, some, you know, threads that they might be able to pull themselves through on like, can we problem solve this? Can I validate your feeling? There’s more talking in a tantrum for me, when my kids are having a tantrum, I’m connecting more verbally with a child. When my child’s melting down. I really stop verbal communication. I really use my nonverbal body language more. So I’m still, co-regulating, I’m still intervening, but I’m using my body language, my facial expressions. I’m giving them more space, but I’m not leaving them alone.

Dr. Emily (12:03):


Dr. Sarah (12:04):

And that’s, that’s sort of the difference for me when, when I’m sometimes a tantrum can kind of evolve into a meltdown too. So that’s where I think that continuum piece is very appropriate to think of it that way. But I do think we’re sort of, it’s like a continuum, but there’s like a parallel. Like it needs to go to a different place. We need to have a different strategy for it.

Dr. Emily (12:27):

Yeah. I mean, and I think of it, I always joke with parents and I think like, as a grown up, if you were really dysregulated, how often does it really help if someone says like calm down, you know. Or how often does it help if someone says, you know, it’s not that big of a deal. Like those things don’t really help. Right. And so I think through, you know, like those are ways that we need to think, or that it’s manipulative and on our part that we’re, that we are being upset or dysregulated. Right. I think it’s really important for us to think through how we can both understand where these are coming from and then how to respond to them.

Dr. Sarah (13:01):

Yes. And I think like, to your point, how do we find the empathy? And a lot of how we find empathy is to pay attention to our interpretation of the behavior, right? If we’re seeing our child, whether it’s a tantrum or a meltdown, if we’re look especially a tantrum, if we’re looking at our child’s tantrum and saying, you are manipulating me, you are trying to get me to give you what you want. If I continue to give you what you want, this is gonna teach you, this is okay. All of a sudden we’re moving away from empathy there. Like that’s not those thoughts. Aren’t really congruent with empathy. I don’t tend to feel empathy towards someone who’s manipulating me.

Dr. Emily (13:38):

And we’re also moving away from our overall parent goal of teaching. Right. You know, like one of our goals is to teach how to have a better reaction in that moment for both of us. And I think where that manipulation thing comes in is it’s a lot of societal judgment, honestly, right? If you’re in the grocery store and your kids having a “tantrum,” you know, because they want sugar cereal, you know, or whatever, you know, you’re all of a sudden under a microscope and it’s very difficult to hold the line in a way that might feel most aligned with your parenting style. You just want it to stop, you know. And that’s where we get into these cycles of, we just wanted to stop. So maybe we aren’t getting down to the child’s level and saying, you really want that cereal, but we’re not gonna get those cereals. Cause we don’t have those cereals in our house and it’s okay to be upset about that, but we’re still not gonna get it. But you’re in the grocery store, you’re not kneeling down on the ground, you know, necessarily, you know, you’re rushing, it’s the end of the day. And this is where I was talking about some of the physiological. Sometimes you have to go to the grocery store when your child is tired and or hungry or, you know, and you’re gonna, you sort of have to be prepared that you might have more tantrums or meltdowns in those situations. And how, how we can sort of go in with that frame of mind saying, okay, I know it’s, this is tough. Oh, I might have pushed you too far. Or you, I know you’re tired, we’re gonna go really fast and try to get through this. Those are sort of different ways that I think we have to navigate the inevitable, but also sort of keep in mind what our goal is, is teaching, teaching them how to say, oh, you know what? I am just really tired eventually. One day they’ll hopefully get that insight. And not that they’re, you know, just being manipulative in that moment.

Dr. Sarah (15:27):

Right. And I think too, and we, if we think about it as manipulation, which is not uncommon and I think very, very often I hear parents saying, but you know, they’re just trying to get what they want. And let’s break that down a bit, cuz yes, yes you are correct. They are just trying to get what they want. But the concept of manipulation requires a pretty high order level of thinking. It requires a pretty abstract and sophisticated thought process that I would argue most toddlers don’t have. And certainly not, certainly not in a dysregulated moment. So yes they are in that very moment. Let’s say they’ve been, or they’re upset about an outcome or they want something and they aren’t getting it. And they become dysregulated. They’re very in that they’re very singularly present and focused on the thing they don’t want. They aren’t actually sitting there thinking if I scream about this long enough, mom is gonna give it to me. So let’s keep screaming so that I get what I want. That’s so much more sophisticated than their thought process. They’re just sort of flooded with, I want this and I don’t have it. I want this and I don’t have it. I want this and I don’t have it. And here comes the tantrum. So can you talk a little bit about the distinction there?

Dr. Emily (16:54):

Yeah, I mean, look, manipulation really would require that they would go into that thinking, this is what they’re gonna get out of it, right? Like I’m gonna go into this grocery store and I’m gonna get mommy to get me this sugar cereal. That is not what happens at all. Right. That is a level of abstract reasoning or planning and executive functioning, that just cognitively younger children do not have. In fact, they don’t have that for quite a while, like much older than you might expect. So you’re right. They don’t go in saying, I’m gonna get this cereal. What they go in is they say, they see the cereal, they think I’m hungry and that looks amazing. And in that moment I just, I really, this is what I need. I really feel like I need this. I really, really want this. And this is what will make me feel better. And they lose the ability to see anything else. Right. And it’s very myopic. It’s very right there that singular need it doesn’t even abstract. Right. They might say fine. Then get me something else, sugary that that’s not even happening. They just want the cereal. So the thought of manipulation is really much, much bigger and more sophisticated and sort of spreads to other things. When, when you think of your child in these meltdowns, they’re in a loop about this one thing because that’s the one thing they’re trying, they think if they get they’ll feel better. Again, back to this self-regulation and they’ll feel better. Right.

Dr. Sarah (18:18):

Right. And I think so when we, as parents, instead of seeing our child as manipulating us in this moment, I think we, because I also think there’s this, and this is a very common thing that people actually teach parents to do when their child is having a tantrum is to ignore it, or to not reinforce it because of the belief that if I give into this tantrum, if I give it attention, it will continue. And I’m teaching the child that a tantrum is okay to have. And I have, I find quite a flaw in that.

Dr. Emily (18:55):

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really tricky, right? Because it is true that some of these tantrums or weak moments or weaker moments that children have, can be, become learned behaviors if we, as parents or the environment colludes with it, right. At the same time, that’s not their intention, you know, they’re not going again. They’re not going in like that. But I do think we have to be very careful about how as parents, that we, that we handle this and going back to your point of teaching and co-regulation in those moments is really critical. Right. We wanna be able to say, I see what’s going on. You’re not a bad kid. You’re really hungry. And you think this will make you feel better. Right. And you just say that, you know, you can just, oh, maybe I pushed you too hard. You’re so tired. And here we are at the grocery grocery store, isn’t that yucky feeling. Right. And that’s not to say, I know, I know you know, it’s not aligned with you and I to sort of ignore a child in this moment, but that also doesn’t mean you have to stay in it forever. Right. You can lead with that validation. You can say, like, I know you really want it. And, and I’m not gonna be able to get that for you. And that feels really yucky, you know? And you can stay in that for a few moments, but then you can move on. Right. But we have to get through the grocery store. So we’re just gonna keep going. And that’s where it gets a little tricky for pants are like, but isn’t that ignoring? And then I’m like, you know, and we discuss about not really, right? Like we’re trying to do distraction or other techniques in those moments, but we’ve also led with validation and seeing the child for what’s really going on.

Dr. Sarah (20:42):

Exactly. It’s like, you, you can, you don’t have to do the validation forever and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, otherwise you are ignoring, but if you start with distraction or you start with ignoring, you’re missing that first really important piece. But once you’ve done the validation, once your child knows you see them, you are here, you’ve, you’ve hooked them at that connection. You know, then they’re safe enough to be, they’re connected to, and you can then say, let’s move through this a bit. You know, I’m gonna help you move out of this. Now that is again, that’s tantrum level. We’re not gonna be able to do that with a meltdown. And, and also real quick, I wanna go back to one other thing you were saying, which is, you know, if we, I agree very much with what you’re saying, that we can validate and not necessarily stay in it indefinitely with them, and that’s different than ignoring, but also what’s different than that idea of reinforcing the, you know, the behavior is this idea that we can, we can allow for a feeling without allowing or reinforcing the wish. Right? So the child wants the sugary cereal. My son wants the pink cup. Both of those kids are in a state of dysregulation because they aren’t getting what they want. I can validate the feeling you really want that, Ugh, you’re so upset that you don’t have that. I get it. And I can still not give them the thing that they want. So there’s where that learning piece might come in, that we can avoid that trap. Right. If every time my son screams, he wants the pink cup and I’m like, oh my God, I cannot handle another tantrum. Or, oh my God, my child can’t be this upset. And I immediately give him the thing he wants to shut off the tantrum, which is also coming from a place of intolerance of tantrums. Then yeah, we might be setting everybody up for a learned behavior. That’s very different than saying, you really want this, I’m validating this experience. You’re having, I’m naming that feeling. That’s in your body. I’m giving you space to have it. I’m not giving you the wish. Because we can’t always have the wish, but I’m here. I’m here for you. In this pain. That’s real.

Dr. Emily (23:11):

I agree completely. And I, and I think I always joke, like we’re never, we’re never gonna be able to do this perfectly. I think it’s important to say that. Like, sometimes you’re just gonna give the pink cup cause you want the kid to stop, you know, that’s gonna happen.

Dr. Sarah (23:22):

Oh yeah. 100%.

Dr. Emily (23:24):

But I think the other piece that I think is really important that you touched upon is the other way we reinforce the is by automatically giving the pink cup to your son right. Before they even ask for it. We’re trying to ward off a tantrum. We’re walking on a little bit of eggshells. Right. We’re colluding by making these accommodations to avoid something that hasn’t even happened yet. Right.

Dr. Sarah (23:48):

Yes. We need to talk about that. That’s very important.

Dr. Emily (23:50):

Extremely important. As ways that we, as parents reinforce some of these intolerance for tantrums. Right. And I joke with parents all the time, cuz they’re like my goal, seeing you is to reduce my child’s tantrums. And I’m always, my goal is for you to not avoid tantrums, the more tantrums they have, the more learning you get to do. And they’re like, ah, but it is true, right. Like anything, the more you practice, the better you get at it. Right. As a parents. Right. So again, I think it’s so important that we talk about, we think about and breakdown and look, we all do this, I do this all the time, you know? And, and, and like the accommodations and what are okay. Accommodations and what are ones that are reinforcing sort of things that we don’t want to, or intolerances that we want our children to develop better skills for.

Dr. Sarah (24:44):

Yes, I do that too. I mean, one of the biggest things, one of the biggest mindset shifts, I often have to kind of work with parents into coming into when we start working together is when they, you know, they come in, cuz their kid has a lot of tantrums and they wanna help. I’m like, okay, the work is not to turn the tantrums off and not even to reduce the tantrums. The work is for you to be able to tolerate them more because we’re shifting the way you think about what their function is.

Dr. Emily (25:11):

Yes, exactly. And I think it’s actually really tricky and important and nuance to talk through also because we do want, and one of the things that I think is important to notice is when your children have patterns or when your children have these meltdown and we do want to set everyone up for success. So it’s not that, you know, those are all accommodations for example, but we do want to, you know, so it’s a little bit tricky, right? Cause we’re, I’m both saying don’t tiptoe and give your child the pink cup to avoid a conflict. But I’m also saying like, look, you know, if you know that child has a lot of tantrums, when they’re hungry, let’s make sure they have a snack before you go to the grocery store, you know? I do think that setting them up in those ways for success are important.

Dr. Sarah (25:56):

Right. And I would distinguish that between giving them what they want to avoid a tantrum versus managing their physiological, you know, balance homeostasis, the things that are from an internal place, setting off what might be a tantrum or may very well be a meltdown for them. If they’re hangry, if they’re tired, if they had a really long day at school where they really had to hold it together, teacher all day, maybe there’s a kid in their class, that’s, you know, kind of rubbing them the wrong way. And now they come home and they’re letting it out. Like, you know, we talk about restraint collapse sometimes on here a lot. Like these are, that’s not walking on eggshells to avoid a tantrum because you always keep a snack in your purse when you pick your kid up from daycare. Right. That’s managing their nervous system, keeping them as regulated as you can facilitate so that you are setting them up for success should they come across a bump that might push them over that dysregulation edge, giving them more of a buffer. That’s very different. I think like to your point that it’s not the same thing as accommodating over accommodating. It’s about sort of, I once wrote this thing on Instagram, I was like, we feed our kid all day long to kind of avoid ever hitting that hangry space. Like we give them, we always say like, don’t wait for your kid to be hangry before you feed them. Right. Don’t wait for your kid to be dysregulated before you regulate them. Yes. Like you can preemptively regulate your child and regulate their nervous system. Give them, make sure that they’re physiologically getting some of their needs met to head off that tantrum to head off that dysregulated state.

Dr. Emily (27:50):

Yeah. And it’s really important that, you know, I always say parents are experts on their kids. And so it’s just about being mindful about the things that are tipping for your kids. Right. Hunger might not be your thing, but being tired might. Or sometimes parents you know, they’re like, oh, that might have been what’s going on. Cause the next morning they had a fever. You know, like there’s a real, it’s really nuanced and it’s very child specific. So get to know your child and then, you know, do that work like exactly what you’re saying. And I think, like my favorite phrase is we are trying to teach our children how to cope with tough feelings. We’re not trying to teach them how to not have feelings. Right? We don’t want them not to have feelings. We’re not saying well, don’t, you know, we wanna avoid saying, well, don’t get upset about that. Or that’s ridiculous. We wanna teach them how to cope with feeling. Everybody has feelings and everybody has tough feelings. So It doesn’t, and we wanna give them an opportunity to cope with those things. Not just to not have them. Like our goal as a parent, isn’t for them to not have affect.

Dr. Sarah (28:53):

Because having their feelings and us meeting those, even the really big intense ones with a lot of curiosity, compassion, co-regulation like our presence, our connectedness, that models for kids, that’s a direct communication. That’s an okay feeling to have. And then your child internalizes, this, this feeling that mommy just named for me, that’s anger. That’s a safe feeling. This feeling that mommy just named for me scared, I’m feeling really scared or I’m feeling really frustrated or I’m feeling really irritated. Like all of these feelings must be safe feelings. Mom knows what they are. She must have a, she’s got this. Okay. You know, they’re internalizing that these, this is how kids have healthy, emotional development, healthy, emotional intelligence, healthy, eventual capacity to self-regulate.

Dr. Emily (29:42):

Yes. I mean, I think that’s really important. And I think it’s important for us just to us to touch upon how as parents, we can do that when it’s really hard. You know, I always say it’s, it’s okay to label your own emotions as parents, not in the service of changing your child’s behavior, but in terms of sort of talking out loud, your self-regulate process, you know. And even taking a little bit of a break, right. It’s okay to take a little bit of a break, you know? Especially if you’re narrating, why, right. You’re giving a little bit of like a, this is how I’m, you know, calming myself. This is how I’m doing this. And I think this goes back to something, you know, I’m sure you hear me say a million times on here, which is strike when the iron is cold tantrums and meltdowns are not teaching moments necessarily. There might be a little bit of, co-regulation more on the tantrum side and you know, those things, but this is not a good time to teach, not have used bad language or how to speak respectfully or, you know, why it’s, you know, not okay to demand, you know, stuff when you have things, you know, a lot of parents always say to me, but they have everything in the world. And these aren’t the teaching moments for those, for those types of things. So I think that’s important to point out too.

Dr. Sarah (30:55):

Yes. There’s, there’s a time for that. You know, you get to, I always talk about the debrief, right? You can, which could be immediately after your child’s kind of reconstituted. It could be later that day. It could be a day later even, but like going back over and saying, Hey, remember that time when we were at the grocery store and things got a little overwhelming or a little stressful, and you were really upset about that cereal. Let’s can we about that for a minute? Like what was going, you know, being curious or if your kids really, really young, maybe instead of asking them to answer, just noticing, like I noticed you got really upset by that, and I’m wondering if maybe you were feeling really hungry and the idea of that cereal just was like, all you could think about. And you know, next time you want something or you’re really hungry, what could you ask me? Or could you, you know, say mom, I’m really hungry and I could get you a snack. Or should we maybe have a plan that we should always have a little snack before we go into the grocery store and I’ll be in charge of that next time. Like, so it’s about problem that the problem solving and also that could be a to time where you could say, you know, we are really lucky that we have so many things. Maybe we could teach a little bit about gratitude or, you know, whatever, that’s the time in the debrief.

Dr. Emily (32:17):

A hundred percent. And I also think like a lot of children look like they don’t take in the debrief. So don’t worry, like it, it’s still okay to, to sort of like say review it and sort of, I call, you know, that, throw the pasta on the wall and see what sticks and say what you think might have happened with your best, you know, imaginary, what might have been happening, what your child might have been, been thinking or feeling and how they could have handled that differently. But I also think if it doesn’t really land, then it’s okay. Right. There’s another opportunity, you know, you might, before you go to the grocery store, say next time, say like, oof, we had a tough time in the grocery store. How can we, you know, we’re about to go in, like, what are we gonna do? Can we make a deal that we’re gonna get one snack of your choice, but that’s all we’re gonna get this time. You know? Like I think there’s always opportunities to revisit it in these micro ways that can help buttress, you know, that your child’s ability to tolerate these situations.

Dr. Sarah (33:12):

Right. But even going to those sort of preventative places requires us to remember that it’s really our job.

Dr. Emily (33:20):


Dr. Sarah (33:22):

It’s not our kids’ job to not have the tantrum. It’s our job to kind of think ahead to anticipate where they’re gonna have cracks in their regulation, where they’re gonna have an overwhelming feeling. That’s gonna take them offline. And not, not even, not necessarily know, we might not be able to avoid it too. Like you were saying before, like sometimes you just gotta do that late, that late evening grocery run after, you know, and everyone’s hungry and cranky and we gotta do it cuz we’re out of everything.

Dr. Emily (33:51):

Yeah, no, I always, I mean, and I think it’s really, really important to say, we’re saying all of these, you know, best practices, but we don’t expect you to do them every time. You know, we, I think it’s really important that we, we don’t do them every time, but we do try to sort of land as many times and be thoughtful and mindful as many times as we can. Or if we find ourselves in those moments, handle them with as much self-regulation on our own parts and co regulation or even just container tolerance on our side for the fallout of that.

Dr. Sarah (34:26):

Yeah. And before we go, I wanted to just make a quick point about like, okay, we’re talking kind of about your typical kid here, but there’s not every kid is your typical kid. Right. We’ve got, we have such a wide range of brain functioning and neurological wiring of our kids, you know, not everyone is quote unquote neurotypical. So let’s, can we talk a bit about this idea of tantrums and really, I think more in more appropriately meltdowns in neuro divergent kiddos.

Dr. Emily (35:02):

Yeah. I mean, I think you’ll see this in parents a lot because it feels like your child shouldn’t be having these anymore. Right. That’s when we get a lot of the psychologists, that’s when we get a lot of these referrals, like my child is having these meltdowns and I just feel like they’re not age appropriate anymore or…

Dr. Sarah (35:21):

And by the way, I just want to throw in really quick. So typically from a developmental standpoint, tantrums tend to come online around one and they tend to be pretty common until around five or six though. It’s very common for a 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, even teenager to have them every once in a while. But if your kid is having daily tantrums past seven or eight, this is where I think parents and I, again, like so many factors go into this. It doesn’t automatically mean that they have some diagnosable condition and by any means, but I think to Emily’s point, like, I think that’s when Emily and I start to get calls.

Dr. Emily (36:04):

Yeah. And in those, precisely, and I think where we assess on that is right. Intensity, duration and frequency, right?We really look at how much is this happening? How we intense, is it, and you know, is it interfering with their ability to do things they want to do or things they need to do? And that does warrant a little bit more peeling back, you know, the onion and seeing what’s underlying it, because we do know that children with, for example, ADHD have executive functioning deficits, right? So that’s exactly the areas of impulse control, frustration, tolerance, distress tolerance, and self-regulation that impact tantrums and say, you know, like sort of getting through those more efficiently or sort of coming through the other side, anxiety can look a lot like this as well, right. Anxiety. And this is where we were, I was joking with you about the pink cup and preventing and accommodating. That happens actually a lot with anxiety kids with anxiety and families where there’s anxiety in the house. So I think that’s really, really important sensory integration disorders thing, but even just sort of like a more neuro sensitive child might have a harder time in louder environments or, you know, and so you might see more dysregulation in that. So I think, again, it goes a little bit back to sort of figuring out what’s not typical and sort of escalating maybe sort of your interventions or seeking help for those kids. But then also like in, in the same vein your child and trying to help them in ways that are very specific to them. I joke all the time that one of my, my middle child is very he’s the hungriest person you ever have met. Right. And it’s literally, I mean, he literally will, you know, be just a total disaster and if you can possibly get food into him within three minutes, he’s like, oh, hi, how are you? What’s going on? You look lovely today? How was your day? You know, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s sort of like those Snickers incredible Hulk commercials. So I think, you know, we have to know that sure. You know, that he’s more physiologically vulnerable to hunger and maybe to tantrums because of when that’s in place. But if we can sort of, sort of prophylactically do address that and, you know, give him enough food or sort of set him up for success that that always helps. So regardless of, you know, their underlying, maybe bigger things, if that’s a pretty extreme thing for this one child of mine, right? Like it’s not just like you get a little cranky, it’s like total meltdown city. So you also wanna sort of understand what are the priorities that you have to get in place to help set them up for success.

Dr. Sarah (38:54):

Yeah. Yeah. So it’s, I mean, I agree. I think it’s, it’s you, you know, we can, you and I, you know, in our practices we diagnose things all the time, but a lot of the treatments are the same.

Dr. Emily (39:08):


Dr. Sarah (39:08):

It’s a lot of what you’re talking about just at like a larger, more in depth scale

Dr. Emily (39:14):

And to be fair. I think when you do have some of these underlying dispositions, like, or deficits, you know, in some of these more diagnosable categories, we are asking parents to be more on their game and it’s a lot, right? Like we are asking parents to be, you know, you have to think every time before you go to the grocery store, right. Whereas, you know, parents of sort of neurotypical children, you know, their kid might have a tantrum, but like nine outta 10 times, they go to the grocery store and it’s okay. You know, if you have a more underlying conditions or more weaknesses or predispositions to vulnerabilities, you might have to think about going to that grocery store and be more mindful about it nine outta 10 times. And so, I do wanna say, like, we are asking parents with children who have a little bit more vulnerabilities or a little bit less self-regulation capacities for whatever reason to be like on it a lot. And that’s hard.

Dr. Sarah (40:08):

Right. It’s almost like a parent whose child has diabetes, has to be constantly monitoring their blood sugar and it’s a lot work and it’s very stressful. And it’s just, it’s a lot more involvement in the maintenance of the, of the sort of homeostasis of your child. Yes. It’s kind of the same with ADHD or an anxiety disorder or learning disability or a sensory processing disorder. If your kind of falls into one of, or an autism spectrum, you know, if your kid is in one of these categories, then as the parent it’s, it’s, it is hard because you kind of have to be their frontal lobes, their external regulating system, you know, well, beyond toddlerhood you just kind of have, I mean, all toddlers us to be their external regulation system. Yeah. And usually kids start to grow out of that around elementary school, late elementary school, middle school for some kids they don’t. And so parents have to be that external regulator for longer and it’s work and it’s hard and it’s exhausting, you know, you need to give yourself a tremendous amount of grace. You’re not gonna be able to get it, keep it together all the time. You’re gonna need more help. You’re going to need more support. It’s not easy.

Dr. Emily (41:29):

And I think like before we end, I wanna also say, I, you know, know we never wanna ridicule or like mock our child. I always, you know, as tempting as is to be like, oh my gosh, the green cup or the blue cup, you know, I can’t. But I do think from a completely independent parent side, you know, it sometimes helps to have humor in all of this. Right, you know. It sometimes helps to debrief with a friend or, you know, your partner around, like, can you believe we spent an hour debating the color of the color, you know, I just, that was my, that was like half of my afternoon. I tried to get him to not use the purple cup, like, ah, you know, there’s like a very, very cute toddler toast. Have you seen this, Sarah? I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It’s so funny. You can probably Google it, but it’s all about how a parent tried to prepare toast for their toddler. And the toddler is like, no, I want more butter. And they like put more butter and they’re like, no, you need to toast it again. And they like shove it back in the toast there. And they’re like, no, we want sprinkles on it. And they like put sprinkles and they’re like, no, no, no sprinkle sprinkles are bad. You know? Like, so it’s important to sort of have a little levity outside of our parenting role, like in our own independent coping with these challenges just to sort of put into perspective for us.

Dr. Sarah (42:43):

Right? Yes. It always is helpful to like, just be able to like give your partner or even just your own little inner self, a like a side glance being like really doing this right now. Yep. We’re really doing this right now. Okay. We’re having a tantrum about bananas. Okay. Here we go. You know, like it’s, we’re not, and again, to your point, like we’re not belittling our child for being upset about a banana, you know, like the second I break a child’s banana and half.

Dr. Emily (43:13):

Oh my gosh. I know

Dr. Sarah (43:13):

Oh my God. I wanted the whole thing.

Dr. Emily (43:16):

The whole banana. Yeah. Obviously I didn’t want it.

Dr. Sarah (43:18):

But you pealed it. I wanted… It’s just like. Put it back together.

Dr. Emily (43:24):

That’s exactly it.

Dr. Sarah (43:24):

The amount of times my kid has asked me to put a banana back together, I should learn, but no. But yes, it’s, some of it’s almost so absurd. It’s comical. I’m not gonna laugh at my kid and I’m not gonna tell him he’s being absurd, but in my inside I’m like, is this really happening?

Dr. Emily (43:44):

Yeah. And it’s, and I think it’s really important, you know, in your own grownup time to sort of like, let that gasket out a little, you know, like to give a little relief. Because as we said, like, it depends on how frequent you have to do this, or how much it’s happening, but sometimes you just need it, you know, sort of to let the air out and, and to have a little bit of like a woo, this has been, this has been a ride

Dr. Sarah (44:05):

Yeah. A doozy. All right. Well, this, this has been a doozy of an episode. I think this is helpful. And it’s so funny cuz like we went into this being like what it’s gonna be the difference of a tantrum and a meltdown. And as you’ve now listened to us kind of articulate it, they’re both different and similar and our approaches are both different and similar. So that’s frustrating. I’m sure. But also this is the nature of young children’s emotional journey. It’s it is frustrating. It is a little mind bending. We are gonna be at a loss a lot of the time. And so, you know, if the only takeaway you get from this episode is learn your child, try to validate, try to co-regulate doesn’t really matter if it’s a tantrum or a meltdown, don’t try to get into their head and try to figure out why they’re doing it as much as you’re just kind of saying, ah, you know what, they’re out of their control right now. So let me just help them get back into their control. And I do that by helping them feel safe by helping them feel seen and not by teaching them to not manipulate me or teaching them to be more grateful or teaching them to be more polite. I think that just kind of trips us up and moves out of compassion for them and for ourselves. Cuz then we get frustrated at ourselves for losing it with them.

Dr. Emily (45:38):

Yeah. I mean, I think my, my, if, if you take one thing out of this, it’s you can describe what’s happening without having to change it. And that goes a long way. Right? You’re having a really hard time or you and as parents, if we can just, just, if we think of those two things like keeping myself calm as the parent and just labeling what’s happening for the child without judging it. I think those are our biggest takeaways from tantrums.

Dr. Sarah (46:08):

I love that. All right. We’ll talk soon.

Dr. Sarah (46:15):Do you feel flooded and frazzled and frantic when your child has a tantrum? There is undoubtedly a lot of parenting content out there about tantrums, lots of scripts, lots of rules. And frankly, lots of shame. I have found that most of these methods also fail to take into account the actual brain science of a tantrum, as well as each individual child’s experience and their relationship with you, their safe person. And that is exactly why I created my course, The Science of Tantrums. It’s a two and a half hour video crash course in all things tantrums strategically split into six short sections. So you can break it up however is most convenient for you. Plus the course comes with a companion workbook that will help you to adapt these strategies to fit your unique child and apply them to fit into your own life. So go to drsarahbren.com/tantrums and start your journey towards feeling confident that you know exactly how to help your child get back to a place of calm connection without yelling, giving in or making it worse. That’s drsarahbren.com/tantrums, or if you’re scrolling through Instagram, as you listen to this, just click the link in my bio and sign up to learn more. Thanks for listening. And don’t be a stranger.

48. The difference between a tantrum and a meltdown: Q&A with Dr. Emily Upshur