When a Tantrum is More Than a Tantrum.

Jennifer Arnold by Jennifer Arnold Additional Needs

Jennifer Arnold

Jennifer Arnold

I’m passionate about raising awareness about disability issues through education and outreach. When I’m not wearing my writer hat, I’m usually tryi...

The first time I realized my daughter’s tantrum was more than a tantrum was right around the time she was diagnosed with autism.

She was just shy of three years old and was flailing on the floor and kicking, which quickly progressed to banging her head against the wall.

She was in full-blown meltdown.

It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t familiar with special needs the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

When people see (and hear) a screaming child out in public, they tend to assume the child is spoiled, or if it’s a really small child, just plain tired.

I used to be the same way. I worked in retail for years, starting when I was in high school, and I have experienced my fair share of upset kids.

There would be many times where the parents would give in and get them the candy, toy, or balloon they wanted so they could shop in peace. As soon as they got their desired item, the wails would stop.

That is one of the main differences between tantrums and meltdowns. Meltdowns can’t be stopped or pacified with a treat.

Meltdowns are much more intense; once they get going, they reach what I like to call “the point of no return.”

After this, all you can do is remove them from the situation if you can, and try to keep them safe until they calm down.

When my daughter was small, it was easier. All I had to do was scoop her up and carry her, potato sack style over my shoulder and take her away from wherever we were.

Now she is 12 and almost as tall as I am. She is also strong as Hell, and when she reaches the point of no return, things get real. She can be a real danger not just to others, but to herself as well.

Biting, scratching, bolting with no thought as to where she is going; she has zero sense of safety.

A few months ago, I had to physically restrain her before she could run into the bus lane at school during dismissal time.

These public episodes used to be embarrassing. Now, I just go into survival mode and think about it later.

My 8-year-old son’s tantrums are still very much tantrums. He doesn’t like the word “No,” and he makes it known- loudly.

It’s evolved from kicking and screaming on the floor to expressing himself at the top of his lungs as to why he is angry, followed with an indignant “hmmph!” and stomping away.

Five minutes later, he is distracted by something else, and the reason why he was upset to begin with, seems completely forgotten.

Both of these types of outbursts can make me feel like I need an emotional detox…. or a stiff drink. Both require totally different interventions, and we are still learning as we go.

By now I’m past the point of being embarrassed when these things happen in public; I just go into survival mode.

My priority is keeping my child safe and deescalating them as soon as possible, and that leaves no room to worry about what other people are thinking at the moment.

Many times, I’ve resorted to my sarcastic sense of humor to deal with the situation, but sometimes I don’t even have time for that.

I just need to get us out as fast as I can.

The biggest takeaway I have from living this life is never to judge anyone that may be in this situation, ever.

There are a million and one reasons that a kid could be screaming in public, and the last thing the parents need is judgment, and dirty looks directed their way.

While no one can “fix” the situation, a smile goes a long way. So does a few words of encouragement.  It’s amazing how much a few kind words can turn someone’s day around.


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