Sensory “meltdown”, or behavioral “tantrum”?

By Isabella Hakobian OTD, OTR/L

It can often be difficult to determine whether your child’s actions are rooted from a behavioral or sensory issue. Here are some ways you can determine whether it is sensory or behavioral, and how to treat a sensory meltdown.

Sensory “meltdowns” are a biological reaction, and they are typically caused by dysregulation. This leads to a child’s inability to process sensory input within their surroundings and environment. Essentially, sensory meltdowns are not a choice, but a biological response. Sensory meltdowns are characterized by requiring increased time to self-regulate, a child may seem unaware of their surroundings and others, and sensory reactions may not end abruptly even after a want or desired outcome has been met.

Treatment for a sensory “meltdown”:

  • First, consider environmental adaptations that could be made
    • Removing your child from an environment with adverse stimuli (turning off loud music, turning down the lights, etc.)
  • After looking to changes you can make within the environment:
    • Provide calming sensory input
      • Deep breathing exercises (“smell the roses; blow out the candles”
      • Swinging (front and back, side to side)
      • Calming music
      • Weighted blanket
      • Hugs or hugging a pillow
    • Create a designated sensory break space for your child
    • Teaching your child to recognize and ask for a sensory break when needed

Behavioral “tantrums” are typically due to a child seeking attention or asking for or demanding something prior to their reaction. Their behavior is often goal oriented. You can use the ABCs of behavior to identify a behavioral reactions:

  • A: Antecedent
    • What happened before the behavior? (Consider the activity, event, environment, etc.)
  • B: Behavior
    • How did they respond? (Is your child still aware of their surroundings and others?)
  • C: Consequence
    • What happens afterwards? (Does the behavior end abruptly after your child gets what they asked for?)


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