Tantrums, meltdowns and sensory development - find out more
In this article, we are going to focus on sensory stimuli and tantrums, how thinking about sensory stimulation might help you to support your child during a tantrum and what you might do if your child seems particularly sensitive to sensory stimulus.
What is a tantrum?
Tantrums are an expected part of our children’s development. The percentages of children reported as having tantrums varies between studies, with researchers finding 70% of children between 18 and 24 months have tantrums, others finding 75.3% of children tantrum. While the figures that are given in research vary, there seems to be agreement that most children have tantrums.
The definition of a tantrum according to the Oxford English Dictionary is:
‘An outburst or display of petulance or ill-temper; a fit of passion. Frequently in plural. Now often spec. a fit of bad temper in a young child.’ 
This definition links to the idea that tantrums are associated with temper, or anger, which might be the case when a tantrum begins, but it might not surprise you to learn that tantrums are more complicated than just having an angry outburst! Researchers have suggested that tantrums involve more than just anger or frustration, and link to sadness and panic as children realise they cannot control their emotions.
A tantrum can involve different behaviours including crying, holding breath, screaming, kicking, falling to the floor, throwing, pushing, pulling and biting, all of which are difficult for parents, especially if a tantrum happens in public or when you are already feeling tired yourself. You know that you need to remain calm to support your child to calm but that can be tricky, and understanding your child’s tantrums might help.
Understanding factors that might contribute to tantrums beginning or that might support your child to calm can help to reduce the number and severity of tantrums. Remember tantrums are common among young children and there will be times when there is nothing you or your child can do to prevent a tantrum.
In this article I am going to focus on sensory input and tantrums. You can read more about tantrums and other factors that might be linked to tantrums in our blog: “I want the other one!” What do tantrums show us about your child’s development and how can you support your child? (mffy.com)
To understand the role of sensory input in your child’s tantrums, it might help to think about your own responses, particularly when you are feeling tired or stressed. Imagine getting home after a busy day and everyone starts talking to you, the TV is on, and the house has a general feeling of business. You feel that you would like everything to be a little quieter, less bright, or less busy, you might make a cup of tea and try to find a quiet space. Sometimes after a busy day, you might have a few moments of quiet before going home so you are ready when you walk through the door.
In her talk about tantrums, psychologist Professor Alice Jones suggested thinking about the sensory stimulation your child is experiencing. Reducing that might help to prevent or shorten a tantrum. Rather than asking your child if they are tired, which might result in an upset or angry response, you could suggest finding somewhere calm, quiet or less bright. A simple, “Is it all a bit much?” might be enough to encourage them to find a quieter place. Sometimes if you notice your child is tired, reducing the stimulation by dimming the lights or finding a quiet space can help them to regulate and might prevent a tantrum.
How can sensory input support a child to calm?
When your child has a tantrum, one of the things that might help them to regulate their emotions is sensory input. Your child might realise this themselves and you might notice they rock, or gently stroke their face, suck their fingers or come for a hug, especially as they are beginning to calm.
Your child’s kicking, shouting and biting during a tantrum provides sensory input. They are finding a way to respond to their overwhelming emotions, albeit in a way that is difficult for you and them. You might find that suggesting your child runs around, dances or jumps might help them to regulate their emotions as this movement and sensory input helps to calm the physical feelings linked with their emotions. You might not be able to suggest this to your child if they are particularly overwhelmed. However, they might copy if you do this or when they are calm you could suggest that moving can sometimes help to calm your body.
You can also support your child to recognise what might help them to regulate their emotions by talking to them about this when they are not having a tantrum. You could demonstrate this yourself by talking to them about what you do to regulate your emotions when you feel angry or upset. They will learn how to respond to their emotions from what you tell them but also from how they see the people around them regulate their emotions.
Sensory difficulties and tantrums – when does a tantrum become a sensory meltdown?
We know tantrums are part of development and that some children have more tantrums than others. Some of this might be linked to individual differences in temperament rather than anything related to the situation or their experiences. However, some of this difference could be linked to the way a child experiences and responds to sensory input.
We know that all of us have different responses to sensory stimuli, some people might particularly notice a label in their clothing and need to cut this out or find very bright light or lots of noise uncomfortable. However, some children and adults might have an extreme response to sensory stimulus, this is described as ‘sensory over-responsivity’. Sensory over-responsivity might result in greater reactions to everyday sensory experiences than might be expected and could result in more frequent tantrums.
For some children, sensory input might become overwhelming and result in a tantrum or meltdown. In one study, 20% of parents reported over-responsivity in their pre-school child, with 56% of this group still reporting over-responsivity when children were school age. Sensory over-responsivity can be linked to one or more of the senses, so your child might be particularly sensitive to sounds, light or visual stimulus, the feeling of clothes, taste, smell or sensations linked to movement or balance. For example, your child might find what you would consider a gentle touch to be overwhelming.
If your child is particularly sensitive to sensations, they might be a little more aware and anxious in situations when these might occur. So, you might find that their tantrums seem to be more easily triggered in certain situations. Although you might see similar behaviour as in a tantrum, this response to sensory stimuli is often known as a ‘sensory meltdown.’ In these situations, your child is still overwhelmed as they are in a tantrum but the reason for this is different, and it might take your child longer to calm down.
If your child experiences sensory meltdowns, they might be less calm than they seem in situations with a particular sensory stimulus. For example, they might seem calm in a bright, busy shopping centre, but could actually be starting to feel overwhelmed by the stimulus. They might feel a little on edge before this becomes overwhelming for them and results in a meltdown. If you notice a pattern in situations or stimuli that your child finds overwhelming, you might be able to support them by reducing the sensory input before they become overwhelmed.
If you feel that your child has very frequent or extreme tantrums, speak to a healthcare professional about your concerns and they might be able to offer further advice and support.
We are here to help
At My First Five Years, we are here to help you understand, support and celebrate your child’s individual development. Our app will help you to understand your child’s behaviour and give you ideas to support them.
You can use our app to celebrate as your child masters skills, read more about your child’s development, find ideas to support them and to capture all the marvellous moments in the scrapbook. Find our app here: My First Five Years on the App Store (apple.com)
Our website has articles and blogs about child development and parenting. If you would like to read more, you can find blogs about sensory development here: Blog | My First Five Years | Sensory (mffy.com)
 Potegal, M., Kosorok, M. R., & Davidson, R. J. (2003). Temper tantrums in young children: 2. Tantrum duration and temporal organization. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 24(3), 148–154.
 Belden AC, Thomson NR, Luby JL. Temper tantrums in healthy versus depressed and disruptive preschoolers: defining tantrum behaviors associated with clinical problems. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2008 Jan;152(1):117-122.
 "tantrum, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/197624. Accessed 24th January 2022.
 Daniels, E., Mandleco, B., & Luthy, K. E. (2012). Assessment, management, and prevention of childhood temper tantrums. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 24(10), 569–573. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-7599.2012.00755.x
 Jones, A. (2022) The weird & wonderful world of children...explained by psychological research. Big emotions and tantrums. MS Teams. Goldsmiths, University of London. 20th January 2022.
 Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. Tantrums. Tantrums | Children & early years tantrums | Normal tantrums | Help with tantrums | Anna Freud Centre Accessed 24th January 2022.
 Carpenter, K.L.H., Baranek, G.T., Copeland, W.E., Compton, S. Zucker, N., Dawson, G. & Egger, H.L. (2019) Sensory over-responsivity: An early risk factor for anxiety and behavioral challenges in young children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 47, 1075-1088.