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. And out come the temper tantrums.
But what happens when the small temper tantrums turn 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 anxiety and major depressive disorder, I often fear that my disorders will be passed on to 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 often triggers excessive feelings of anger and irritability. Emotions which I never learned to control and manage properly.
But to see these same reactions in my seven-year-old, 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 towards himself but has quickly developed into anger towards others. While his aggression towards others is not physical, words are often more painful that 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 quickly continue to worsen. And there would be nothing I could do on my own to stop it. We are now 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.
Average Temper Tantrums or Something More?
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 is cause for concern when the behavior begins to happen on a weekly, or even daily, basis.
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 their 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 have already. 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:
- Regular or recurring outbursts that are extreme for the given situation (for children ages 5 and over, the outbursts could be occurring at least weekly for six months or more)
- Behavior only occurs in one setting or with one individual or group of individuals
- My son is amazing in school. He shows no signs of distress with his teachers and he never has. The behavior he exhibits only occurs at home and in family settings.
- Recurrent defiance toward authority figures (teachers) or parents
- Lashing out towards close friends
- Physical aggression aimed at people and property
- Persistent irritability
- Attempts at self-injurious behaviors
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 the words to tell you what is going on.
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.
Some Childhood Psychiatric Disorders that Commonly Express as Tantrums or Aggressive/Defiant Behavior
- Anxiety in children doesn’t often present itself as it does with adults. Think about it, do you think your child understands the concept of anxiety? Can he/she tell you that she is feeling anxious, nervous, etc.? Chances are, not very well if at all. Outbursts and defiant behavior can often be a symptom of anxiety in children.
- Conduct Disorder
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder
- Learning Disorders
- 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.
How Can You Effectively Manage Temper Tantrums?
The 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, chances 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/her feelings.
Journaling is a terrific way for your child (or anyone) to express their feelings in what I like to call a safe zone. It allows them to freely express what is bothering them without having to tell an adult or a peer who may not fully understand. It also helps them get the feelings off their chest and sometimes even out of their mind. To help your child start a journal willingly:
Take him/her to the store to find a nice journal and pen(s) that they choose. Allowing them to choose their own journal will give them more excitement because it will truly feel like their own. They picked it and they’ll be more likely to use it.
Explain to your child when the journal is to be used and why you are asking them to use it. With my son, I explained to him and reasoned with him that he and I often struggle to explain our emotions to each other, but this way he can let the emotions out freely without fear of being misunderstood.
Create a system with your child that will give you access to entries that they feel comfortable sharing. Sometimes it is easier to put on paper how we feel than it is to say it to someone else. For us, if my son ever puts an entry in his journal that he doesn’t want to share, I have him fold the page in half when he is done writing it. This way, if I want to read his journal to better understand his feelings, I can easily skip the ones he isn’t yet ready to share.
Creating an emotional toolbox
This is what I like to call the emotional first-aid kit. Basically, it is a box/tote/bag full of activities that your child likes to do. They are calming activities that can help break a temper tantrum and then allow you to proceed to discuss it with your child.
This is best used in conjunction with your child’s journal. Give them a chance to write about their current feelings and then have them complete a calming activity on their own.
Setting firm and consistent boundaries and consequences
Children need structure in their day-to-day lives to learn to properly manage their behaviors. This is no different for the boundaries and consequences we, as parents, must enforce daily.
Allowing an inappropriate behavior, even once, can lead to more long-term issues in terms of acting-out behavior. Children do not have the capability to learn proper rules for living if they are not regularly enforced.
Don’t give in to the eruption. Stay true to your boundaries no matter the behavior.
React calmly to outbursts
Part of the problem, I noticed, in my own parenting is my tendency to react instinctively. I allow my emotions to react for me on occasion, rather than taking a moment to assess the situation and identify any possible triggers that may be affecting my son’s behavior.
Reacting in a calm and collected manner will bring your child more peace and feeling of safety when they are being punished for their behavior. It can also help them see that you are willing to listen and help them, rather than just scold them and move on.
Discuss the outbursts after everyone has calmed down.
I find this to be extremely helpful in my own parenting.
Giving the child the chance to calm down before discussing the situation will allow them to clear their minds and articulate the issue at hand as best they can.
It gives both of you a chance to mentally prepare for the conversation and any necessary steps that may be taken.
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.
What Can You Do Right Now?
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?
What Can You Do Long-Term?
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 temper tantrums at home. Try the methods outlined above regularly to help your child begin to manage their emotions and become more aware of their feelings.