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Meltdown vs. Tantrum

You'd think that after 3 other kids, I would be a pro at this mom stuff but Raya finds ways to remind me every day that I still have a lot to learn. :) Today, the topic of her lesson for Mommy is that there is, in fact, a difference between a Raya the sensory mess meltdown and a Raya the toddler tantrum. Who knew.
Case in point: the innate desire to be independent and do EVERYTHING for herself, and a lot of things for me too. Sweet and well-intentioned but often counterproductive. This morning I really needed to go potty. (TMI, sorry) I told the girls I was going to go potty and to behave until I came back, and Raya immediately made a beeline for the bathroom so she could open the toilet for me. Then she wanted to get the toilet paper for me. I asked her to go out and close the door for me but she wouldn't budge because she REALLY wanted to help me. Sweet gesture, but for the LOVE, can't I just do that ONE thing alone?!? :) I ended up using a different bathroom (read: ran away and locked the door behind me) and she cried and screamed and pounded on the door while yelling what I'm sure were her best attempts at insults and toddler profanities. By the time I came out of the bathroom 2 minutes later, she was busy doing something else. That was a tantrum. She was mad because she didn't get what she wanted, she threw a fit, and she got over it without any intervention from anybody else.

I've mentioned the carseat drama but it's the best meltdown example I can think of at the moment. Raya now wants to climb into the car, get in her carseat, and buckle it all by herself without me touching her or the carseat every time we get in the car. The problem is that she's not quite physically capable of doing all of that yet, and since we are often in a rush when getting in the car (yes, totally my fault) we don't have time for her to spend 10 minutes buckling herself, nor do I want her pinching herself in the buckles like she often does. That hurts! Raya doesn't care about any of the reasons why I help her buckle though, she just wants to do it herself.
Recently, any attempt on my part to help her buckle her seatbelt, no matter how patiently & gently I approach it, results in a screaming, kicking, wrestling match. Once she's buckled, she continues to cry and scream for the entire duration of the car ride no matter how long or short it may be. I think that often, being tired contributes to the meltdown but on a non-meltdown day, she often would have gone to sleep during the time frame that we're in the car. In other words, she's tired so she's more likely to get into meltdown mode but then once the meltdown starts, she's unable to calm down and regulate her emotions. Make sense?
There's a great article on Understanding SPD that talks about how a meltdown for a child with sensory processing disorder (SPD) quickly becomes a "fight-or-flight" response. The author of the article states, "I truly believe most meltdowns trigger a 'fight or flight' reaction for the child's brain, especially with sensory kiddos. Therefore the meltdown lasts longer and is difficult to manage." That's basically what I was trying to say with my ramblings about the carseat. Now that Raya has gotten to the age where it's normal for kids to be throwing fits, I'm starting to see a distinction between the typical 2 year old tantrum and the times when it's truly a sensory-related meltdown. The article goes on to explain the roles of the Parasympathetic Nervous System and Sympathetic Nervous System related to fight-or-flight and how to deal with a meltdown of this type. The bottom line is you can't treat a sensory meltdown the same way you treat a tantrum that is behavioral.
When Raya gets into a sensory meltdown vs. a tantrum, she cries and screams, doesn't respond to anyone that tries to talk to her, doesn't talk to anyone, often lays down on the floor, and she kicks/hits/wrestles/tries to get away. The biggest difference is the lack of responsiveness and the duration. A meltdown can last a very long time.

I'm certainly no expert on dealing with sensory-related meltdowns and am really still trying to figure out what works best for Raya, but so far here are the things we've learned:
1. When she gets into meltdown mode, there's absolutely no point in trying to talk her through it or reason with her because her mind is not in a state of being able to process reason or logic. As the article stated, "The brain is not responding in a cortical manor (thinking, judgment, and reasoning), it has shifted to brainstem level during a “fight or flight” episode."
2. I'm still learning how to have the type of patience it takes to deal with these meltdowns. Even after having 3 other toddlers before Raya, this is new territory for me and takes a whole new level of patience, including being patient with myself through the learning process. Sometimes after the fact, I know I didn't handle things the way I should have but I just have to learn from it and move on.
3. Sometimes the best thing I can do for her is leave her alone until she's done. When we're at home, sometimes I just lay her down on the carpet and let her throw her fit. Because we know that Raya gets visually overstimulated easily and being in the dark helps her calm down and relax, it can help to put her in a dark, quiet room for a few minutes. Removing her from whatever situation triggered the meltdown (when possible) can help.
4. Since a lot of the situations that trigger meltdowns happen in public settings, I've realized that having people stare is just something we're going to have to get used to and do our best to ignore. Some people stare in sympathy and some stare in judgement, but either way, it's uncomfortable. I don't want people to see my screaming toddler and think she's being naughty or think she's a "brat", but let's face it, that's what people think when they see kids throwing fits in public.
5. If I can remove her from whatever is triggering a meltdown and use the techniques I've learned from her occupational therapist, I actually CAN help her pull herself out of it and bring her back to a calm state where she's able to function with logic and conscious thought rather than the cortical "fight-or-flight" state of mind. This is why having an OT who is trained in sensory disorders is so vital. Raya's 2 OTs have helped Raya immensely but even more importantly, they have helped ME understand her so much better and have given me tools to implement at home.

I feel like for me, understanding sensory processing disorder is really a learning process. The more I understand, the more I realize that there is SO much more to it than meets the eye. In order to deal with sensory processing disorder as it affects Raya, I have to be able to understand what's going on inside her brain that's causing her to have the reactions that she has to the things that bother her. I also feel like the more I start to understand her and why she is the way she is, the closer I feel to her and the more I love her with all of my heart and soul.


  1. Hi,
    I originally found your blog because I am volunteering at a children's rehab hospital and was trying to find out more info about what having a kid with a feeding tube is like. This post and a couple others strike a nerve with me because I have SPD. I am 18 years old, just finished my first year of college, and am studying to be a recreational therapist. When I was little, SPD was a lot less known, and so no one, including my parents, thought there was anything wrong with me. I had meltdowns all the way into 6th or 7th grade. it was awful. I was ostracized by my peers, and my self esteem suffered because I felt like a baby. I never knew what was causing these melt downs. I always liked rocking sensations, and the feeling of being snuggled, but I was claustrophobic. I was very picky, and certain textures of foods set me off. I also didn't like the way any clothes but very soft ones felt. These are only a few of the things my parents dismissed as 'quirks.' I actually had a year of OT in 4th grade, and we did some sensory work, but as far as I remember, never anything like what Raya is doing. It amazes me how much medical knowledge can change over the years. The fact that, as a 2 year old, Raya's meltdowns are being identified as a result of SPD nearly brings me to tears. If I had known, as a little kid, that there was a reason I reacted differently than my peers, and if my teachers had known, my childhood would probably have been totally different. One of the worst memories of my childhood is that in 4th grade, I was melting down, and my teacher took me into another classroom and left me there, to try to force me to calm down. No big deal, right? Well it was the classroom all my friends were in, and they laughed at me, and never spoke to me again. The advice I can give you, having grown up with SPD: let Raya have her quirks, and make sure the adults responsible for her know what they are, their reason, and that she can't help it. Also, the therapies you are doing with her now will probably make all the difference. I wish I had had a diagnosis, and I wish you best of luck with all of your children!


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