Why Do Tantrums Occur?

Autism spectrum disorders, a class of neurodevelopmental disorders, are characterized by significant impairment in social skills, communication and are characterized by restricted repetitive behaviours that affect their involvement in everyday activities. Several challenging behaviours occur in these children, of which the most debilitating one that impedes learning is tantrum behaviour.
“Tantrum behaviors are those which involve a cluster of behaviors including defiance, oppositional behavior, screaming, crying, aggression, and property destruction, which may be difficult to stop once they have begun” (Green, Whitney, & Potegal, 2011).
Tantrum behaviours also occur even in young typically developing children as they learn to develop emotional regulation. However, they are considered atypical and tend to have negative outcomes, when tantrum behaviours are excessive and continue into later childhood. Tantrum behaviours tend to occur in typically developing toddlers for different reasons Such as :

  • Positive reinforcement (Attention/ Sensory stimulation)
  • Tangible reinforcement (obtaining a desired object)
  • Negative reinforcement (removal of the aversive stimulus)
  • Desire to be independent but having limited motor skills
  • Inability to communicate their needs with limited language skills
  • The prefrontal cortex , the brain center responsible for emotional regulation and social behavior
    of the brain has not yet developed (its development is complete by the age of 7).
    Difference between Tantrum and Meltdowns:
    The terms ‘tantrums’ and ‘meltdowns’ are often used interchangeably but they are not the same thing.
    Features of a tantrum behaviour:
  • They are always goal oriented
    A tantrum behaviour may be exhibited by a child because of their frustration or ability to obtain a desired object or due to unsatisfied biological need such as hunger, thirst or sleep.
  • They always requires attention or an ‘audience’. A tantrum behaviour of a child tends to stop when the parent stops paying attention or when it is reinforced by satisfying the child’s need.
  • Tantrums are an angry or frustrated outbursts.
    Features of a meltdown:
    Sensory meltdown are common in children with ASD, and have features unlike temper tantrums.
  • Sensory overload:
    A meltdown often occurs when the child is overwhelmed by the overloading of sensory information that compounds their deficits in sensory processing. The change in routines or unpredictability of situations can also cause anxiety in a child with ASD and result
    external behaviours that are similar to a tantrum (such as crying, yelling, or lashing out), or it can trigger a complete shutdown and withdrawal.
  • Meltdowns are not attention seeking behaviours.
    An autistic meltdown will occur with or without an audience. They can occur when the person with autism is entirely alone. They are the response of an external stimulus overload that leads to an emotional explosion (or implosion).
  • A meltdown is an uncontrolled behaviour .
    A child exhibiting a meltdown often does not benefit from the normal measures to reduce tantrums like distraction, hugs, incentives to ‘behave’, or any form of discipline. Problematic or challenging behaviours that are noted to be chronic in those with ASD include aggression, self-injury, property destruction, noncompliance and stereotypies. Research has shown that a higher frequency of challenging behaviours in children with ASD is related to lower levels of adult and peer interaction (Matson et.al., 2010). As children age, they quickly learn to use their challenging behaviours as a means of controlling their environment, whether it be to gain attention, tangibles or for self-stimulatory purposes. The challenging behaviour provides a method for the child to have their needs met when an appropriate alternative behaviour is not known or is deemed less efficient by the child.
    Differentiating between a tantrum and a sensory meltdown is often difficult unless the parent/caregiver is attuned to the sensory stimuli which can overwhelm the child. Identify the behaviour, whether it is a
    meltdown or tantrum can help in reducing the challenging behaviour in children with ASD.
  • Recognizing the possible purpose of the child’s behaviour
    When children seek attention or want to escape from the situation, ignoring the tantrum and not giving in help in reducing the behaviour. Consistent behaviour from the caregiver by actively
    avoiding the tantrum on every occurrence can lead to gradual reduction in the behaviour.
  • Reaffirming positive behaviour
    Every socially appropriate behaviour needs to be praised and positively reinforced so that desirable behaviour tends to occur more frequently.
  • Developing skills of emotional regulation
    As children develop cognitive skills, logical reasoning and providing explanations to why the behaviour is inappropriate can help them reduce tantrums. Providing opportunities to develop emotional regulation, problem solving can help a child who exhibits tantrums as a result of struggles with impulse control, communicating wishes and needs, knowing what’s appropriate in given situations. STRATEGIES TO ADDRESS MELTDOWNS IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
  • Use of Visual schedules, social stories, check-off lists, and activity or task schedules
    Children with ASD tend to exhibit meltdown when they become anxious or overwhelmed due to the unpredictability of daily routines and situations. Visual schedules, activity or task schedules give the child information regarding the framework of a daily routine and help in reducing the child’s anxiety of the unfamiliar. Similarly, social stories also help the child to predict and understand what happens in different situations, thus helping the child to be prepared for an
    unfamiliar social situation.
  • Ensuring safety:
    Children with autism may unintentionally hurt themselves or others during their meltdowns. Moving away from the environment where the child is distressed and allowing the child to slowly calm down can ensure that the child is not hurt in the process.
  • Use of a calming routine:
    Even after a meltdown decreases, children still need help to calm themselves even after the energy from the meltdown is spent. Incorporating calming factors in the child such as visuals or music to help the child calm down can reduce meltdowns.
  • Mapping the pattern of behaviour.
    Identifying triggering agents that cause sensory overload in a child can help in reducing the resultant sensory meltdowns that occur. Symptoms can include more than normal stimming, or rocking, asking to leave an environment, or simply bolting to escape, etc. Calming strategies can be used even before the child’s symptoms escalate. A sensory integration toolkits including different items such as sunglasses, squeeze ball, soft fabric for rubbing on hands, or a stuffed
    animal can act as calming agents in environments where sensory overload may occur.
  • Routine sensory diet activities:
    The inclusion of sensory diet activities such as using a weighted blanket during sleep, engaging in
    deep pressure activities at certain times in the daily routine can help in alleviating the sensory
    issues that occur in children with ASD.
  • Matson, J. L., Neal, D., Fodstad, J. C., & Hess, J. A. (2010). The relation of social
    behaviours and challenging behaviours in infants and toddlers with autism spectrum
    disorders. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 13(3), 164–169.
  • Bennie, M. (2016, February 2). Tantrum vs Autistic Meltdown: What Is The Difference?
    [web log].
  • Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and
    Intervention for Individuals With ASD. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
  • Konst, M. J., Matson, J. L., & Turygin, N. (2013). Exploration of the correlation between
    autism spectrum disorder symptomology and tantrum behaviors. Research in Autism
    Spectrum Disorders, 7(9), 1068–1074. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2013.05.006