Tantrums

Is your child throwing temper tantrums?

Is your child:

  • Throwing fits?
  • Displaying a temper like a house of cards?
  • Having lengthy tantrums lasting 30 minutes or more?
  • Challenging to soothe even as an infant?
  • Throwing tantrums that last much longer than you would expect?
  • Having a history as a fussy baby who needed to be held or could not sleep through the night without constantly waking and crying?
  • Seeming too old to have such intense temper tantrums?

LET'S TALK ABOUT IT

Is your child ‘throwing down’ on a regular basis? Does he or she get so mad so frequently that you are scratching your head, thinking, “what is wrong with my child?” Are transition times, like bedtime, mealtime or time to get off the video game, a real challenge?

Some children are just more challenging to raise. You might notice that your child has always been difficult to soothe. Children with big tempers can be challenging. You may feel like your house is a war zone.

It is normal for children to argue or resist occasionally when required to drop a preferred activity to participate in a non-preferred activity. However, if tantrums last over an hour or occur more than a couple times per week, your child may have an issue worthy of clinical attention.

Children should be able to be soothed by love and comfort from caregivers. A child who is in upper elementary school should calm down quickly, and should not be throwing tantrums more than once a week. If your child is still crying, screaming, and losing his temper, over the age of 8, a significant problem could be present.

CLINICAL DESCRIPTION

Emotion regulation is a child’s ability to regulate and contain emotional outbursts. This system could be functioning poorly for your child.

Behavior: Sometimes, tantrums are being unintentionally reinforced. A child screams, and a parent provides the desired item to achieve peace and quiet. For example, Johnny throws himself on the floor and screams, and mom says, “If you stop crying, you can have a treat.”

Temperament is our innate level of activity or negative emotionality.  Some children are not born to be easy-going. They just don’t go-with-the-flow. Their grandparents may say, “that child is wound tighter than a spring.” Research shows that a child’s temperament is somewhat of a lifelong feature of personality. However, your ‘temperamental’ child can be taught good behavior and these tantrums can be reduced or eliminated.

Anxiety: Some very anxious children will throw fits because they become overwhelmed with an ominous feeling that bad things are happening. Anxious children can generally be taught coping skills and strategies; which should lessen the level of tantrums significantly.

Early Stressors & Medical factors: Children with extreme emotions may have problems in the brain’s Limbic System, including the Amygdala, a brain structure responsible for emotion processing. Early stressors such as prenatal alcohol or drug exposure, birth trauma, or maternal illness may have impacted your child’s development.

Tantrums could be related to a medical condition, anxiety, or a history of exposure to trauma. Children with a medial or neurological reason for their tantrum behaviors are challenging to parent and may require clinical support and intervention.

Atypical development: A typical temper tantrum may last between 2 and 15 minutes. If your child’s temper tantrums last for 30 minutes to an hour, a problem may be present. Tantrums occurring once per week are less concerning. Tantrums daily or at least 3 or 4 times per week of significant length and intensity are not typical.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR CHILD HAS A TEMPER TANTRUM

Temper tantrums can be challenging and embarrassing for a parent. Perhaps in public people give you dirty looks or try to offer advice. You just want your child to stop screaming so you can finish grocery shopping. As hard as it is, it is very important not to reinforce temper tantrums accidentally.

Make sure child is okay: You must be sure that your child is not hurt or sick or crying for a significant reason. If the child is wet, hungry, or tired, provide the needed support.

Be okay with making a scene: You will need to notice your own level of embarrassment and work to let that go. If you feel elevated because your child is having a meltdown in the store or at the park where other parents are watching and judging, things will get worse.

Stay calm and present: If you are prepared to handle a meltdown, be clear and calm in your communication. Say, “no, you cannot have that toy today.” If the child throws that tantrum, you will probably want to leave the public place. Gently pick the child up; do not use words, and leave your groceries where they are.

Once you are in a place you feel your child is safe, put him or her down, and say, “Let me help you calm down.” If your child keeps screaming, turn your body away, but stay present. Model your own quiet, calm demeanor. Any signs of calming or good behavior should be praised. Say, “nice job using your quiet voice” or “good job breathing.” As your child begins to calm down, provide comfort and empathy.

Resist the urge to argue: Stay calm yourself, and never engage in a dialogue with a screaming child. Older kids who tantrum can be even harder because they are bigger and louder. Don’t answer, just remain calm, and say you’ll be happy to have the discussion when he or she can speak in a kind voice.

Do not place demands you aren’t prepared to enforce: If you aren’t ready to endure a tantrum, if the child asks for the toy train, and you can afford to get it, say, “sure.” You must respond this way before a tantrum begins, though, or your giving in will reinforce the undesired behavior. Yes, you are offering the child what he wants. However, you are not letting his behavior dictate the rules. You are in charge.

Only provide reinforcement for positive behavior: If she asks nicely, you can give her the toy. If she is screaming and crying, gently say, “I will wait until you can ask nicely.” Or “When you are calm, we can finish shopping and go to the park.” Then, stay present, and do not provide attention for the tantrum.

Teach your child to manage strong feelings: A good book for a child having temper tantrums is, “Soda Pop Head.” [5] The story describes a child who is always about to ‘blow his lid’ over incidents with peers and siblings. He learns to use strategies like the ‘push, pull, dangle’ muscle relaxation strategy to calm down. As he calms down, he lets a little pressure out of the ‘bottle’ so he does not blow his lid. This book can help ‘externalize’ the blame and help your child learn effective calming techniques [5].

Get help if your child is really struggling: Research shows that tantrums respond well to behavioral intervention. Do not feel required to tackle tantrums alone; look into ABA therapy provided in your home to address these behaviors. Behaviors need to be addressed in the moment with providers who have or are supervised by a clinician who has a Board Certification in Behavior Analysis (BCBA). Consider also meeting with a psychologist to determine if your child has underlying emotional symptoms. Don’t hesitate to seek parent consultation therapy as well; tantrum behaviors are hard, and you may need support.

SIMILAR SYMPTOMS

If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • General anxiety: tantrums might be caused by irritable mood; feeling a lack of control, or worry about the world
  • Emotional problems (Feeling): tantrums might be caused by irritable mood; feelings of sadness and depression, particularly if there is a family history of mood disorders
  • Social problems (Socializing): tantrums could be due to poor social skills and social emotional reciprocity; challenges getting along with others
  • Aggression: tantrums could be accompanied by aggressive behavior
  • Medical issue: tantrums may be due to a medical condition
  • Temperament: tantrums may be related to a higher level of negative emotionality, one of 5 temperament traits, or early factors that contribute to personality

POTENTIAL DISABILITIES

Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Anxiety: challenges with constant worry and hypervigilance, leading to restlessness and irritable reactions and sometimes tantrums
  • Attachment Disorder or PTSD: rigidity and extreme behaviors that stem from a history of traumatic experiences or interrupted attachment to primary caregivers (death of a parent, change of caregivers, or abuse); can lead to aggression and tantrums
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: poor social skills and misinterpreting of social cues can lead a child to become easily upset and throw tantrums
  • Bipolar Disorder: irritability that is pervasive and alternates with periods of elevated mood, pressured speech and goal directed activity; impulsivity; in children cycles tends to be less differentiated; children may tantrum out of irritability
  • Major Depression: depressed mood, or in children, irritability that is pervasive; may respond in a negative manner
  • ODD or Conduct Disorder: behavioral disorders that are created by accidental reinforcement of bad behaviors; it’s reinforcing to throw a fit and get what you want or get out of something by misbehaving; always rule out a medical condition before going in this direction

WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Clear Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • ABA Therapist: to assess and treat behavior; may conduct a functional analysis and develop a behavior plan that can guide treatment
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise and help with social skills training and organization
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment and to consider symptoms in mental health and/or behavioral context
  • Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication
  • School Psychologist: to develop and provide behavioral intervention plan (BIP) or Individualized Education Program (IEP) if your child qualifies

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • Roberts, BASC-3, Clinical Interview, RCMAS, CDI-2, Human Figure Drawing, PTSD Scale, Rorschach, Brief Projective Measures: emotional assessment through drawing tasks, open ended questions, interviews, rating scales, and sometimes storytelling (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)
  • WISC-V: intelligence assessment to establish a baseline of intellectual abilities, which can help us to understand emotional knowledge and symptoms and to determine what interventions may work best (Psychological or School Psychological evaluation)
  • ADOS-2: social assessment for concerns and poor social perspective taking, indicating an autism diagnosis should be considered (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)

LEARN MORE

[1] Cook, Julia (2011). Soda pop head.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Soda-Pop-Head-Julia-Cook/dp/193163677X/

[2] Cook, Julia (2011). Soda pop head: Activity and idea book.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Soda-Head-Activity-Idea-Book/dp/1937870022/

[3] Meiners, Cheri J. (2010). Cool down and work through anger (Learning to get along).

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Cool-Through-Anger-Learning-Along/dp/1575423464/

[4] Mulcahy, William (2012). Zach gets frustrated (Zach rules series).

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Zach-Gets-Frustrated-Rules/dp/1575423901/

[5] Hentges, R. F., Davies, P. T., Cicchetti, D. Temperament and Interparental Conflict: The Role of Negative Emotionality in Predicting Child Behavioral Problems Child Dev. 2015 Sep-Oct; 86(5):1333-50.

[7] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[8] www.jedbaker.com Jed Baker is a psychologist and author whose books address temper tantrums and social skills

[9] Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Explosive-Child-Understanding-Frustrated-Chronically/dp/0060931027/

[10] Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Whole-Brain-Child-Revolutionary-Strategies-Developing/dp/0553386697/

Image Credit:
Description: alone crying unhappy girl lying on asphalt
Stock Photo ID: #73465936 (Big Stock)
By: ababaka
How-to-deal-with-temper-tantrums
Previously Licensed on: May 30, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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