Temper Tantrums or Something More? Distinguising Between Normal Outbursts and Distress Behavior

It is hard to determine when a child is past the age of "appropriate outbursts" because let's face it, all children develop at a different page. And everyone responds to emotions (large and small) differently. The same goes for our children.

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Every parent knows the struggle. You ask your child to do something simple, and instead of completing the task they break into a fit and refuse. The truth is, that is normal for children of all ages. At one point or another, we’ve interrupted a task they enjoy and expected them to do something less exciting.

But what happens when the small fit turns into something bigger? Something excessive or extreme? Would you be able to tell the difference?

Don’t worry if your answer was no. I couldn’t tell either. At least at first.

My concern started when I began noticing behavior in my son that I recognized from my own emotional reactions. As a parent with multiple mental illness diagnoses, I often fear that my disorders will be passed onto my children. It’s been shown that my children are genetically more susceptible to mental illness because of my own background as well as my family history. The same goes for any child whose family history contains psychiatric disorders.

This doesn’t rule out environmental factors, but it does raise a red flag when I am concerned about the behaviors presented in my children.

My anxiety and mood disorder often trigger excessive feelings of anger and irritability. Emotions which I had never learned to control and manage properly.

But to see the same reactions in my own child, I began to worry.

He has always felt everything more intensely than others, worrying about things you wouldn’t think a child to be aware of. And then the anger started. It began as lashing out toward himself, but has quickly developed into anger towards others. While his aggression towards others is not physical, words are often more painful than actions.

Easily triggered by seemingly menial situations, his behavior began to erupt into something uncontrollable and inconsolable.

To watch as a meltdown grows into something that is, for lack of a better word, terrifying and be unable to console and comfort your child is heart-wrenching.

I quickly realized that if I didn’t intervene, his behavior would continue to worsen. And there would be nothing I could do on my own to stop it. We are not currently in the process of working with treatment professionals so that he can learn to manage and control his behaviors. But that doesn’t mean this will be a short road.

Accepted Outbursts vs Concerning Behavior

It is hard to determine when a child is past the age of “appropriate outbursts” because let’s face it, all children develop at a different pace. And everyone responds to emotions (large and small) differently. The same goes for our children.

It’s generally accepted though, in the mental health/psychology community, that tantrums should be expected to continue through the developmental age of about seven or eight years old.

This doesn’t mean that the behavior your child is expressing falls within the accepted norm for their developmental stage. It is quite common for a child, of any age, to have a tantrum or fit on occasion. It’s cause for concern when the behavior begins to happen on a weekly, or even daily, basis.

3 times.

My son has had an excessive outburst three times this week. And I am not talking about fifteen-minute spats about how much he hates his homework. This last one went on for over two hours. That is a huge red flag. When a child throws a temper tantrum it isn’t uncommon for the fit to be over and done with after about fifteen to twenty minutes. Followed by (hopefully) a short apology for the behavior. And I’ve tried everything I could come up with to help calm him. Including allowing him to let steam off without my reacting to his behavior.

. When a child throws a temper tantrum it isn’t uncommon for the fit to be over and done with after about fifteen to twenty minutes. Followed by (hopefully) a short apology for the behavior. And I’ve tried everything I could come up with to help calm him. Including allowing him to let steam off without my reacting to his behavior.

All attempts failed and by the end of it I was emotionally exhausted and wondering where I went wrong as a mother.

The truth is, I don’t know that I could’ve parented him any better than I already have. He’s been a mindful, respectful child from a very early age. He has incredible manners and is always (almost always) considerate of others. But in these moments, I feel as if there is a different child living in my home and it’s truly upsetting.

These are not your typical temper tantrums.

What You Should Watch For:

These behaviors can signal distress in your child. I know that when I am in the middle of an episode, I cannot verbally express how I am feeling. With that being said, I am an adult and have the vocabulary and knowledge available to me to comprehend the emotions I feel. Children aren’t yet wired to be able to acknowledge and appropriately express their feelings. This becomes an issue in communication when your child feels emotions at an intense level.

They know how they feel, but they don’t necessarily know what they feel. And they may not have to words to tell you what is going on.

Many times, childhood psychiatric disorders appear as opposition towards parents or just plain “bad behavior.” But it can definitely cause some red flags for parents. Especially when you’re normally friendly and loving child is now throwing hurtful words at you and lashing out on a regular basis.

The signs and symptoms that would appear in adults will be different for children in most cases. And it can be hard to distinguish what may be causing these reactions because the symptoms often overlap.

It is hard to determine when a child is past the age of temper tantrums because let's face it, all children develop at a different page. And everyone responds to emotions (large and small) differently. The same goes for our children.

Some Childhood Psychiatric Disorders that Commonly Express as Tantrums or Aggressive/Defiant Behavior

  1. Anxiety
  2. ADHD
  3. Conduct Disorder
  4. Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  5. Learning Disorders
  6. Sensory Processing Disorders

This list is in no way comprehensive as it is difficult to compile a list of all disorders that may exhibit such behaviors in children. Each individual will react in a different way and express their emotions differently. But I wanted to give you an idea of how difficult it is to determine the root cause of a child’s behavior without further evaluation.

I urge you to take some time to research on your own. The Child Mind Institute has excellent resources for parents on dealing with childhood mental illness as well as common childhood behaviors.

Taking Care of You First

Let’s be 100% real right now. If you’re not at your best, you aren’t going to parent at your best. It just isn’t possible. Being a mom, or dad, is a difficult job and it definitely affects our mental state at times. If you ever find yourself with a shorter fuse than usual or less willing to be there to assist with difficult behaviors, it may be time to look into getting yourself evaluated by a doctor or counselor to be sure that you are well cared for.

Ignore the stigma around counseling. It isn’t only for the severely ill. Anyone can utilize counseling if they find themselves struggling to function to their normal level. It’s okay. I promise it’s okay.

One good option for someone with a tight schedule is to look into online counseling. There are a lot of different companies out there that offer this type of service, and it is a great, trusted source for therapy and counseling. BetterHelp is a company that I know of that has really good staff. Their counselors are also certified and legitimate.

How Can You Effectively Manage Temper Tantrums?

They key to understanding your child’s behavior is being aware of their behavior patterns and possible triggers. If your child struggles in a certain area at school, changes are that they will exhibit more acting-out behavior centered around those activities. For example, my son is learning division this year and he struggles with some of the problems. Instead of trying to work the answer out in different ways he will completely shut down and begin to have a meltdown.

It is difficult to manage his behavior when he gets to this point because we have struggled to find the underlying cause of the behavior. But that isn’t always the case for parents.

For children who may not have mental illness or other disorders present, there are extremely effective ways to manage tantrum behavior without seeking professional help.

  • Teaching your child to journal his or her feelings. But get them involved in introducing this process by allowing them to pick out their journal and some fun pens or pencils to use specifically for journaling. Be sure to create a system with them that allows you access to entries that they feel comfortable sharing. For example, they can fold the pages in half that they aren’t ready to share yet. This gives you an opportunity for insight into what they’re going through.
  • Creating an emotions toolbox is a great way to get through a meltdown. Basically, you’d take them to the store to buy items and activities that they find calming. Keep a few activities and toys on hand in a small tote or box. When they’re close to or at the beginning of a meltdown you can instruct them to pull the box out and work on an activity until they feel better. This is best used in conjunction with their journal. Having them write out how they feel and then work on an activity has a dual benefit.
  • Setting firm and consistent boundaries and consequences.
  • React calmly to outbursts.
  • Discuss the outbursts after everyone has calmed down.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over It

The mere fact that you are reading this and genuinely concerned about your child shows that you are doing the best you can as a parent. No parent is perfect and we all make mistakes. Sometimes we just need an outside view on the situation to be able to handle it better.

I am just like you. It took me some time to be able to look outside of the situation in the moment to realize that there may be something bigger going on with my son.

I am not a psychiatric professional, but I am a parent. I am a parent who deals with excessive outbursts on a regular basis and I only hope that you were able to gain some valuable information from reading this. If you feel that your child’s behavior is abnormal for their developmental stage and age, I urge you to seek professional advice and treatment. It is best to seek treatment for behavior that turns out to be normal than to not seek treatment and allow the child to continue dealing with any possible disorders without proper tools.

The 2-Minute Action Plan

Grab a pen and pad and jot down your answers to these questions. They may give you a broader view of the situation at hand and can help you voice your concerns with your child’s physician.

  • How many times in the past 2 weeks have you noticed excessive outbursts from your child?
  • Can you identify a specific trigger present in each of these situations?
  • Where does the behavior occur? Only at home, or in all settings?
  • Take note of your personal reactions to these outbursts. Is there a way you could better handle them?
  • Have you tried any calming exercises with your child? If yes, what were they and were they effective?\

The Ongoing Action Plan

  • If you fear that there is a deeper issue with your child’s behavior, check their behaviors against trusted resources. These are not diagnostic tools but can give you insight into potential causes for their behavior.
  • Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to voice your concerns and get medical advice on the situation at hand.
  • If psychiatric treatment is recommended, have a calm discussion with your child as to why you are considering counseling. Explain to him/her that it is not a punishment, but a way for them to learn more about their emotions and how to manage them.
  • Be proactive in your attempt to manage their behaviors at home. Try the methods outlined above regularly to help your child begin to manage their emotions and become more aware of their feelings.

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