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Is it a tantrum or something more serious?

By The Health News Team | May 9, 2024
Child crying and holding onto tablet device

Tantrums, or outbursts of frustration and anger, are common in young children. But how can a parent tell the difference between a regular tantrum and something more serious, such as a mental health condition in a child?

“Every child has tantrums,” says Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical psychologist with the Child and Adolescent Inpatient Program at Sharp Mesa Vista. “However, the frequency of tantrums should decrease by the time a child grows older and starts attending school.”

According to Dr. Bradshaw, as kids grow older, they can better regulate their emotions and express them in healthier ways, such as by calmly vocalizing them. This skill is known as co-regulation, which can be done by working with them to identify how they feel and supporting coping and calming strategies.

Common causes of tantrums

Hunger, fatigue, family stressors or a change in routine can be common tantrum triggers. But if a child has frequent tantrums spontaneously without a known trigger, this could be a cause for concern.

The severity of tantrums in younger children can also be telling. “You want to ask yourself: Are the tantrums to the point where the child is very violent and destructive toward objects, themselves or others?” Dr. Bradshaw says.

Young children can have meltdowns, which are extreme tantrums in which they lose control until they tire themselves out completely. But Dr. Bradshaw says these shouldn’t occur regularly.

When to seek help

If your child is age six or older and continues to throw frequent or severe tantrums, it could be a sign they’re struggling with a mental health issue, such as depression, anxiety or neurodivergence. Additional signs of these concerns include:

  • Social isolation

  • Persistent sadness

  • Challenges with focus or impulsivity

  • Poor performance in school

  • School avoidance

  • Difficulty with changes in routine

  • Weight loss

  • Sleeping issues

Structured mental health programs staffed by a range of experts, including child psychologists, social workers and recreation therapists, can be helpful for children facing severe mental health conditions.

“As for younger children who are not yet six years old, parents can determine whether the tantrums are a sign of something serious if they’re on a nearly daily basis, or they result in significant harm to others or major destruction,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

If you are concerned about your child possibly struggling with a mental health issue, Dr. Bradshaw recommends talking with your pediatrician. “If needed, they can help connect you to a mental health professional, such as a child psychologist, who can work with you and your child to relieve their symptoms,” he says.

How tantrums can be treated

Treatment can include therapy that teaches a parent how to coach their child when they’re experiencing a tantrum. Additionally, children can learn how to regulate their emotions, which is an emotional intelligence skill.

As difficult as it may be, Dr. Bradshaw encourages parents to try to soothe a child in the moment instead of scolding them when they’re throwing a tantrum.

“Fighting aggression with aggression can worsen the situation,” he says. “Instead, focus on empathizing with your child and providing them with a protective space so they can calm down. And don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you think your child is experiencing something serious.”

Learn more about child and teen mental health services at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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