I sit and watch the mama seated two seats away from me struggle to keep her daughter calm. She seems to want more candy. I see her whisper, but I don’t hear what she says. It doesn’t seem to have worked because her daughter keeps speaking. Then she starts crying, and the crying quickly turns into wailing and hitting. One head turns to stare, then two, then three. The judgment is silent, but it’s there. I can see the exact moment mama loses the battle. I can see she’s worried about making a scene and I feel sorry for her as she pulls out more candy from her bag. And I think to myself we’ve all been there. We’ve all been that mum, doing whatever it takes to calm the waters.
Anger in kids is normal. But sometimes it’s not. And it’s not always easy to tell whether your child’s anger is simply a way of expressing big emotions or is something you need to be worried about. In one study, researchers wanted to know whether there are differences in the temper tantrums displayed by healthy children and those displayed by kids with clinical problems. They wanted to differentiate between “normal tantrums” and “abnormal tantrums”. The researchers asked the caregivers of 279 three-to six-year olds to complete a Preschool-Age Psychiatric Assessment which they then used to measure tantrum behaviors. They found that there are different “tantrum patterns” between “healthy”, “depressed” and “disruptive” children.
Tantrums in children are normal, especially in certain specific situations. For example, your child is more likely to have a tantrum when he is hungry or tired. That said, although temper loss is a common occurrence in children, there are a few things that may point to a need for intervention when they occur every day or during several days a week:
- Violent behavior
- Repeated tantrums per day
- Intense tantrums
- Disproportionate behavior
- Frequent reports from school about your child’s out of control behavior
- Difficulty recovering from tantrums
- Aggressive behavior toward inanimate objects
- Self-harmful tantrum behaviors
Wakschlag and colleagues studied the behavior of 1, 490 preschoolers. They found that there is cause for concern if your child displays certain types of behavior several times a week. They came up with a list to help you determine whether your child’s tantrums are normal based on the frequency of certain behavior. According to the researchers, these are the behavior traits to watch out for:
1. Have a temper tantrum, fall-out, or melt-down
2. Stamp feet or hold breath during a temper tantrum, fall-out, or melt-down
3. Have a temper tantrum, fall-out, or meltdown that lasted more than 5 minutes
4. Keep on having a temper tantrum, fall-out, or melt-down, even when you tried to help him/her calm down
5. Break or destroy things during a temper tantrum, fall-out, or melt-down
6. Have a temper tantrum, fall-out, or melt-down until exhausted
7. Hit, bite, or kick during a temper tantrum, fall-out, or melt-down
8. Lose temper or have a tantrum with you or other parent
9. Lose temper or have a tantrum with other adults (e.g., teacher, babysitter, family member)
10. Lose temper or have a tantrum when frustrated, angry, or upset
11. Lose temper or have a tantrum when tired, hungry, or sick
12. Lose temper or have a tantrum to get something he or she wanted
13. Lose temper or have a tantrum during daily routines, such as bedtime, mealtime, or getting dressed
14. Lose temper or have a tantrum ‘out of the blue’ or for no reason – Anger regulation
15. Become frustrated easily
16. Yell angrily at someone
17. Act irritable
18. Have difficulty calming down when angry
19. Have a short fuse (become angry quickly)
20. Get extremely angry
21. Have a hot or explosive temper
22. Stay angry for a long time
There’s no need to panic if your child displays several of these behavior traits. The researchers found that specific tantrum behavior may be cause for concern only when it occurs several times a week. Here is a FREE PRINTABLE COPY based on Wakschlag’s study to help you better analyze your child’s tantrum behavior.
Some of the things to watch out for to determine whether your child’s tantrums and meltdowns are normal
Sometimes tantrums are persistent and severe and leave you completely clueless as to how to react to your child. Research says there may be cause for concern if your child displays the behavior below.
- Disproportionate tantrums
Although tantrums in young children are normal, excessive tantrums are not. If your child has a disproportionate reaction to a given situation, she can display destructive behavior or even aggressiveness toward you or her siblings, classmates, friends or caregivers. The study found that children who displayed violence 90% of the time they were in a tantrum often had a greater risk having a clinical problem. If your child often seems to be out of control at home and in school, a specialist may help you determine the most effective way to deal with her behavior.
- More than five tantrums per day
Some children may have several tantrums per day, but when your child has more than five tantrums per day on average at home or in school, it is a good idea to seek help. The number of tantrums a child has is an important criterium in determining behavioral disorders.
- Self-harming behavior
Intentionally engaging in self-injurious behavior during tantrums is often a cause for concern. The researchers cited earlier found that children with mood disorders were more likely to harm themselves and others (biting, hitting, kicking, holding breath, head banging, etc.) than healthy children who had tantrums. They say that there is cause for concern when this behavior is displayed more than 50% the time during the last 10–20 tantrum episodes.
- Never-ending tantrums
The duration of temper tantrums in young children varies but long-lasting tantrums are often a cause for concern. If your child’s tantrums last longer than 25 minutes, they may point to a more serious problem. Also, if your child’s tantrums last more than five minutes but he has tantrums four to six days per week (or more) you should seek advice from a professional.
- Inability to calm himself
Research suggests that children who are unable to calm themselves down after a tantrum (regardless of tantrum intensity, frequency, or context) may be at a greater risk of having a mood disorder, especially if they have frequent tantrums per week (at least four).
If your child is struggling with difficult emotions, age-appropriate resources such as The Emotions Kit can help her learn to express her emotions in a more appropriate manner. But if this article reinforces your doubts about your child’s behavior, please get in touch with a specialist for further evaluation to identify the best approach to managing his behavior.