Stop hijacking our terms; meltdowns and tantrums are not the same

Lately, I’ve noticed that it has become an En Vogue Thing for a mother of a young child to claim that her child had a “meltdown” in public.

If the child is autistic or has some other type of sensory processing issue, she may be right on.

If not, then I call Bullshit.  Face it, lady; your child had a tantrum.  Say it with me now: TAN-TRUM.  I know that the word “tantrum” carries with it some cultural baggage, such as being a pushover parent, not being able to effectively control your child, and all of that (uncomfortable, uncool) jazz.

But then, the word “meltdown” enters the average vocabulary.  And much like many other new words, phrases, and concepts, it gets misused.  A LOT.  People have this tendency to use words that sound cool and different before they truly know how to use them correctly.  Using words correctly takes a back seat to impressing their friends.

NOT impressive, at least to me.

So, I’ll take this opportunity to serve up a nice hot cup of Teaching Moment.

Let’s (correctly) define the vocabulary.  And because I’m a decent teacher, let’s start with the simple and most familiar.

A tantrum is when someone, typically a child, has a desire, but is denied that desire by someone else.  The child does not get his or her way, and the child is NOT happy about that.  The child may be young (or not), but is old enough to know how to push a parent’s buttons.  This can happen anywhere and at any time, but is usually most effective and immediate if it manifests in some form of public embarrassment.  The best example I can think of is the old cliche supermarket or shopping mall, where the child sees candy or a toy that he or she wants, Mom tells him or her “no”, and the child throws him/herself on the floor and screams.  The child has learned somewhere along the way (or is trying out the theory for the first time) that, bad behavior embarrasses Mommy and if he or she makes enough of a scene, Mommy will (or might) give in and give him/her what he/she wants anyway, in order to terminate the tantrum.

The tantrum is a VOLUNTARY, BEHAVIORAL response.  It is typically a response to a SINGLE event, usually with the hopes (from the child’s point of view) that he or she can forcibly turn their desires into reality despite resistance (usually on the part of the parent).

If the parent had told the child “yes”, the tantrum would not have happened.

If this is the first tantrum and the parent very forcefully and effectively (but also, hopefully, constructively) deals with it very quickly, the full-on tantrum will not happen.

A first-time tantrum might be acceptable.  Children naturally try to push their parents’ boundaries, to see how far they can go before crossing a line and dealing with the consequences.  This is a natural part of growing up.

Repeated tantrums are not acceptable.  Those are signs of ineffective parenting.  Given an established, firmly-entrenched pattern, a child may or may not outgrow them.  Hopefully, they will.  With proper parenting or innate wisdom and maturity, most children do.

A meltdown, on the other hand, is NOT the same thing as a tantrum.  At its very core, it’s a completely different concept.

A meltdown is when someone, child OR adult, has become overstimulated or overdriven in some way.  This can be in the form of neurological stimuli, changes in plans or routine that are too abrupt or too many in number, buildup of excess stress or anxiety, or other events.  It can be worsened by other physiological issues, such as illness or other unwellness, poor nutrition, insufficient sleep, and other factors.

The meltdown is an INVOLUNTARY, NEUROLOGICAL response.  Sure, it looks like bad behavior.  But it is still merely a behavioral manifestation of a (say it with me now: ) neurological response.  It is typically a response to a BUILDUP or ACCUMULATION of events, usually accompanied by a feeling of anxiety or desperation to “MAKE IT STOP!!”  The Make It Stop concept is the ONLY desire.  “It” may be anything, but it’s typically not one single thing; rather, it’s usually a cumulative concept.  Sometimes, it’ll be impossible to figure out what might have contributed to it.  It may be impossible to figure out when the precursor events/stimuli began to accumulate.

The thoughts and feelings involved run the entire spectrum of negative emotions.  It usually starts out with either a little anxiety/stress or a little irritation.  Many times, these two emotions go hand-in-hand, pinging back and forth faster than a tennis match.  They build and build until–oops–my babysitter had a different peanut-butter-and-honey-sandwich-making strategy than I did (or, as an adult, the last straw was the seventh idiot I saw texting while driving on the interstate)–and Holy God, the VOLCANO ERUPTS.  Heaven help anyone in a certain radius, because it’s going to blow.

Because it’s involuntary, the next emotions are rage, anguish, and helplessness.  Followed eventually by relief, bittersweetly-tinged with guilt, shame, and embarrassment.  And maybe, at some point, after a shaky and blank period, a sense of calm again.

But did you catch that?  Yes, I said “guilt, shame, and embarrassment”.  We didn’t WANT to do that.  We couldn’t HELP doing that.  It was not Our Choice.

The depressing part is, those of us with sensory processing problems don’t just outgrow them with time.  That means that no phase of adult life is guaranteed to be meltdown-free.  We’re never out of the woods.  The possibility is always hanging over our heads.  We’ll never be free from it.

The best thing to do (and indeed, about the only thing we can do) is to practice prevention.  The tough part is, we don’t always know when the meltdown precursors and triggers are starting to accumulate.  So this Prevention Strategy needs to be a daily practice; for many of us, it becomes (even subconsciously), a way of life.

So please…if you’re a cutesy, chic mom of a neuro-typical child searching for a new word for your child’s tantrums, find another word.  The thesaurus is full of words; just pick one.  Leave ours alone.  The meltdown concept is taken (by us), and we’re not giving it up.  We’re not going to let you hijack it and dilute it or transform it into a different meaning.  The two concepts are not even remotely the same.  And they never will be.  Your children have a prayer of outgrowing their outbursts.  Ours are a lifelong, ever-present threat.

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