Typical Temper Tantrum or Emotional Trouble? How to Tell the Difference
By Robyn Matlon, Psy.D., licensed psychologist with Parents Place Marin
In my experience as both a parent and child psychologist, emotional outbursts are one of the most concerning and frequent issues children are referred for. If you think about it, childhood is a pretty frustrating period of life. You’re starting to have ideas, hopes, and preferences of your own but you have very little control over any aspect of your life and someone bigger than you is always telling you what to do. Almost every child will have occasional meltdowns or tantrums, or angrily refuse to do something we ask of them. So what kinds of angry behavior are “normal”, and when should you seek outside help?
Temper tantrums are normal in children between about the age of 1 to 3 years old but should decrease by the time they are 5 years old. Angry outbursts tend to diminish as children become socialized, are able to verbally communicate their thoughts and needs, and learn to regulate their emotions. For elementary-school aged kids, you can expect tantrums to occur occasionally when your child is hungry, tired, or sick.
If your child shows any of the signs below, then you will want to set up an appointment with a child psychologist or therapist:
- Your child is over 7 years old and still experiencing regular tantrums or meltdowns (outside of being hungry, tired, or sick)
- Your child’s behavior is dangerous to himself/herself or others, or frequently results in destruction of property
- The tantrums and defiance are causing a lot of conflict at home and disrupting family life
- The behavior is causing him/her significant trouble at school, with staff reporting that he/she is out of control, or he/she is suspended or expelled for angry outbursts
- The behavior is impeding your child’s ability to get along with peers and he/she may be left out of birthday parties, play dates, and other social events
- Your child is upset and may feel bad because the anger feels out of his/her control
- Your child is withdrawing or no longer interested in participating in activities he or she once liked
While individual temperament and development/age play a part in a child’s behavior, parent behavior and their response to their child’s actions also influence behavior patterns. A psychologist or therapist can help you understand the triggers for your child’s outbursts, develop new tools and ways to respond to your child’s negative behaviors, and assess your child for other underlying mental health issues that may be causing emotional dysregulation.
Join one of our upcoming Parents Place workshops:
Hitting, Biting, and Pushing: Managing Challenging Behaviors, Thurs., April 25, 1:00 – 2:00 pm, online.
Raising a Highly Sensitive Child, Tues., April 30, 6:30 – 8:30 pm, in Palo Alto.
Robyn Matlon, M.Ed., M.A., Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist with specialized training in play therapy, child development, attachment, depression, anxiety, complex trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Robyn conducts comprehensive psychological assessments of children for a range of issues, including learning, attention, and memory challenges, as well as struggles with social-emotional or behavioral functioning. Her approach is strengths-based, collaborative, and draws on psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, mindfulness and play therapy techniques. Robyn can be reached at Parents Place in Marin County: 415-419-3625 or [email protected].