Wednesday, 15 May 2019

We Need A Better Word For Tantrums - But Meltdown Isn't It

Tantrum. Strop. Paddy. Those are horrible words aren't they?

Image courtesy of Pexels


When we use these words the predominant mental image is of a ‘naughty’ child using tears, screams and stomps to get what they want. Of course, when you take a more gentle approach to parenting you realise this isn't the case - or at least, it's not that simple. Yes, the child may be crying because they didn't get what they wanted (and if their tears do produce the desired outcome they may come to rely on that option to ‘solve the problem’) but really all they're doing is expressing their frustration in exactly the way anyone would if they had limited communication skills, only the beginnings of emotional intelligence and no appreciation of social norms around not screaming on the floor.

The thing is, I've noticed that to avoid the negative connotations of the word ‘tantrum’, many people replace it with the word ‘meltdown’. And that's problematic.

I was one of those parents. I referred to every emotional outburst Girl Child had as a meltdown. But then we started to talk about the possibility that she's autistic and, as any bookish parent would, I went away and researched what that meant. It turned out that I wasn't far off the mark because a lot of her outbursts *were* meltdowns, but still, not all of them were. Some were just her way of expressing her anger or frustration with the limited emotional restraint and social skills she has.

Because a meltdown is something more. A meltdown is when the sensory and/or emotional conditions a child (or adult) is faced with overwhelm them and they lose control, mentally and often physically. They may fall to the floor (and not in the more controlled way a 'tantrumming’ child would) or lash out, or they may curl up and retreat. They can scream, but not be able to use many (or any) words. It can take them a long time to recover - an hour or more for very severe meltdowns.

This is a very different situation to child shouting and stamping because they're cross. You can often distract a cross child with a cuddle or an offer of a fun alternative to whatever they want. It is very hard to distract a child in meltdown - although some children may have particular ‘tools’ that help them to regain control, like fidget toys, snacks, a book or a comfort object. But in some cases, you just have to ride the wave.

Meltdowns are not unique to autistic people, but they are much more common in autistic people. Also, tantrums aren't just a ‘neurotypical’ thing - autistic children can just get frustrated without tipping over into meltdown, and some may experiment with pushing boundaries to see if a tantrum will make us relent, especially if that has worked in the past.

It's hard to see the line, but the line is there. Raising a toddler/preschooler at the same time as learning more about Girl Child's condition has taught me that. Preschooler might prostrate himself and cry if I say no to a biscuit, but if I give him a hug he will eventually calm down. If Girl Child is having a meltdown, she will not accept a hug and will not calm down until either the sensory situation has changed or she's exhausted.

Of course, if we as a society could shift our view of children enough to stop seeing a child expressing their feelings as spoilt or manipulative, then that would solve the semantic issue here. But I don't see that happening any time soon. And so lumping tantrums and meltdowns together just means that children (often very vulnerable ones with additional needs) get the same negative attention.

How do we fix this problem of language? I honestly don't know. I try where I can to refer to the feelings being experienced rather than the behaviour - i.e. “he's upset that his tablet time is over” instead of “he's having a tantrum because his tablet time is over.” Maybe if we talked more about managing big feelings instead of managing tantrums that would be helpful in shifting our perspective from dealing with a difficult child to helping a child finding things difficult?

I don't have the answers. But please, can we stop diminishing meltdowns by likening them to the normal expressions of hurt or frustration that every small child has as they work out how to handle life? Thanks.

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