Meltdown! Hissy fit! Snit! Tantrum! A moment. What do you call it when your kid loses it? By Mark Peters for Babble’s parenting dictionary, Jabberwocky.

When visiting my friends Mike and Coleen, their daughter – though generally a pleasant young citizen – had a full-blown, code-orange, restaurant-grade hissy-snit during a bath.Afterwards, Coleen dryly said their daughter was “having a moment.”

Heh. As a euphemism admirer, I enjoyed the understatement and was reminded of a similar, motor-sports-oriented meaning of “moment” that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, describes “a dangerous incident; a narrowly-missed accident.” This 1990 use may metaphorically resonate with parents: “Had a moment today. Over a ton on the clock when the brakes went . . . Hung half the car out over a cliff.”

I don’t know how common this use of “moment” is, but I’m pretty sure “meltdown” is a word on the lips of many parental units, especially at those times when “aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” is on the lips of their children and Juicy Juice is splattered on the walls. Right here on Babble, I have some examples to back me up:

“But if you’re dealing with a meltdown that no amount of milk, Cheerios or chewable morphine will cure, then the Stroll-a-Tune ($30) may be the perfect stroller toy for you.” – Mike Adamick, July 10, 2007

“She was already a little cranky – she hadn’t wanted to go out in the first place – and so rather than risk a temple meltdown, I thought I could cheer her up with some running around.” – Greg Allen, January 11, 2007

“That’s a lot to pay for a thin piece of cloth, especially given the difficulty of getting the arm flaps under a baby’s back during a meltdown.” – Sam Apple, November 29, 2006

Though also used to describe adult-propelled immaturity-fests, “meltdown” may have always been destined to live in the realm of children; its first documented use was in a publication kids might not read but would certainly support in principle: Ice Cream Trade Journal. Here’s the 1937 quote: “The Sod. Alg. ice cream melts down cleanly in the mouth . . . Due to the clean melt-down . . . a cooler sensation results in the mouth than with gelatin ice cream.”

Of course, most early uses were deadly, not delicious; they involved the literal meltdown of a nuclear reactor. But since at least 1983, the OED has “meltdown” being used non-nuclearly to mean “Any uncontrolled and usually disastrous event with far-reaching consequences; a sudden and decisive collapse.” The way “meltdown” combines terror and error might be what makes it useful to parents. American Dialect Society member John M. Baker said, “‘Meltdown’ seems to me to be less judgmental than ‘tantrum’ or ‘fit,’ which may contribute to its popularity – it implies a loss of control rather than an ill-advised volitional act.”

Of course, no one word or trend can cover every way parents discuss the moments all families have. For mom Stephanie Hawkins, tantrums are known as “‘world class freak-outs’ – I think ‘meltdown’ applies to parents/adults more than it does to kids. I don’t think the word ‘meltdown’ adequately gets to the blood curdling, anxiety-inducing, panic that takes hold when your kid goes from mild crying to outright shrieking.

“When that happens – the shrieking, that is – I move like one of those characters in a horror movie. Everything seems to go in slow motion, I fumble to get her fed, drop things. Whatever it is I’m supposed to do I can’t do fast enough.”

What words do you use when your child is melting down or pitching a snit-fit? Let us know in comments.

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