Sensory Meltdown or Tantrum: Which one is it?

When working with sensory kids and their families, one of the number one questions that is asked is—is this a sensory meltdown or a tantrum? It’s often hard to tell the difference between the two, and takes some detective work to figure out which one it is. Determining if a sensory meltdown is occurring is especially difficult because sensory thresholds for these children can vary day to day. So often we hear, “Is it sensory or a behavior” that is causing an action in a child. Here are the clues to help you discern the difference.

For more information on sensory processing, you’ll want to grab our free sensory processing disorder information packet. This is a handy printable designed to better understand SPD and what that looks like in our kids.

How to know if a chil is having a sensory meltdown or tantrum. These clues will tell the difference.

Behaviors of Sensory Meltdowns and Tantrums Look Similar

The challenge in determining whether behaviors are the result of a sensory meltdown or a tantrum, is that the child’s behaviors in both instances, are usually the same.

Behaviors that are observed during both a sensory meltdown and a tantrum may include:
• Screaming
• Hitting
• Kicking
• Name calling
• Hiding or avoidance
• Crying

The difference between a meltdown and tantrum however, can be often times, be found in the events prior to the behaviors.

For information on sensory play ideas, you’ll find a lot here on The OT Toolbox.


Tantrums are usually in response to the child not receiving a want/desire out of a situation, or not achieving a goal as they had planned. In these instances behaviors typically occur for an audience, and may cease when the child has achieved their goal. This may be a way of testing boundaries with the authority figure in the situation.

Tantrums can usually be resolved with consequences, reminders of the boundaries, removal from the situation, or distraction to the upset child. Children are also not typically emotionally drained after a tantrum and can resume their routine with ease. This is not necessarily the case when a sensory meltdown occurs.

What is a sensory meltdown and how to tell if a child's behaviors and actions are a sensory meltdown or a tantrum

Sensory Meltdowns

Sensory Meltdowns are the result of sensory overload, and reaction to the big feelings that overloads cause.

When in the throes of the sensory meltdown, the child is not able to control their reactions, behaviors, or emotions.  These episodes may also leave the child inconsolable, even when distraction or preferred items are offered, or even when the parent ‘gives’ into what the child is demanding.

Meltdowns may appear happen without a trigger, or may be in response to an event that seems otherwise innocuous to the parent.

The main clue that the behaviors the child is exhibiting is sensory meltdown related is that the behavior does not achieve a want, need or goal.

In the case of a sensory meltdown, having a set of strategies available through use of a sensory diet can help with sensory overload, big feelings, and reactions.

Clues a Behavior is a Sensory Meltdown

• Reaction to event, feeling or overload of sensory input
• Is not to achieve a want, need, or goal
• Continues even without an audience
• Ends only when the child has calmed down and the feelings are out
• The child is very tired after the meltdown or appears ‘spent’
• The child may feel embarrassment or shame as a result of their actions—typically this is seen in older children.

These signs can show up at home, in the community, or in the classroom. Here are strategies for using a sensory diet in the classroom.

What can Trigger a Sensory Meltdown?

Sometimes, we can see a meltdown coming, and other times it seems to hit out of the blue. This is particularly true of children who are a little bit older, and understand what is acceptable and what is not. Because of this, parent’s often report that their children do GREAT at school, and then lose it at home.

Some clues that it might be a meltdown include:

• Being over tired or hungry
• Illness or general unwellness—allergies can be a trigger to this sense of general unwellness. This may include food allergies or sensitivities.
• “Holding it together” for long periods of time—going to school, camp, play dates, etc.
• Change in routines—extra day off of school, vacation, or parent traveling. Essentially, anything outside of the child’s daily routine being off may result in a sensory overload and meltdown.

It may take several hours, or several days before a meltdown occurs as a result of these triggers. As a result, it can appear as though there is no cause for the meltdown until the events prior to the event are examined. If you go back far enough into the past few days, a trigger is usually able to be found.

Whether it’s a tantrum, or a meltdown, behavior is a direct form of communication from kids to adults about what is going on in their life. Knowing the difference between the two can lead to recognition of triggers and patterns, implementation of prevention strategies and successful emotional recovery in both situations.

Create a sensory lifestyle to address sensory meltdowns or tantrums in a way that fits into the daily life of a child with sensory needs.

Tools for Sensory Meltdowns

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is a guidebook in strategies to help with sensory meltdowns. Taking the specific and individualized activities that make up a Sensory Diet and transitioning them into a lifestyle of sensory modifications, strategies, and techniques is a Sensory Lifestyle!

This book is for therapists, parents, teachers, or anyone who works with kids with sensory needs.

If you struggle with creating a sensory diet that WORKS…
If you are tired of trying sensory tools that just don’t seem to fit within a child’s busy day…
If you are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start with understanding sensory processing…
If you are a therapist struggling to set up sensory programs that are carried out and followed through at home and in the classroom…
If you are a teacher looking for help with regulation, attention, or sensory meltdowns and need ideas that mesh within the classroom schedule…
If you are looking for sensory techniques that kids WANT to use…
If you are striving to create a sensory lifestyle that meets the needs of a child and family…

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is for you!

Sensory Lifestyle Handbook book by The OT Toolbox author, Colleen Beck, OTR/L