Tantrums are an inevitable part of parenting — anyone with young kids feels this deep in their soul. We eventually learn our kids’ triggers and how to avoid potential meltdowns. We plan outings around naptime to avoid overtiredness. We keep snacks in our bag to ensure a drop in blood sugar doesn’t spiral into screaming. We provide simple choices around tasks like getting dressed to ensure our kid feels a sense of control. We maintain consistent routines so that our kids know what to expect.
But what about when all this forethought and planning doesn’t reduce the number of tantrums your child is having? What if, despite all your interventions and efforts, your child continues to have epic meltdowns? What if the meltdowns persist far longer that what seems like a “normal” tantrum? What if tantrums appear out of nowhere — you can’t identify the trigger, they just happen, for seemingly no reason? What if your child has frequent tantrums, up to five per day? What if your child tries to hurt themself?
These are all red flags that your child’s tantrums might be a signal that something deeper is going on. Yes, pretty much all kids have tantrums to some degree or another, but ongoing, persistent meltdowns that feel out of the blue could mean your child is dealing with something under the surface. Also, if your child is “too old” to be having tantrums but is still having them regularly, that could be another sign.
For Scary Mommy staff writer Rachel Garlinghouse, her son’s tantrums started at age two but continued through age six, when he was finally diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and ADHD. “The ‘tantrums’ were actually ‘sensory meltdowns,’ from stimulation that wasn’t being processed, especially noise and lights,” Garlinghouse says.
She said many people blew off her concerns that there was something bigger going on than just tantrums. “Boys will be boys,” they told her, “all kids do that,” and “they just need a good spanking!” Garlinghouse said even her own primary care doctor blew her off, but she knew something more was happening.
“I pursued a private evaluation and it was confirmed that my child has a combined type of SPD [sensory processing disorder] — both avoidance (of noises/lights) and seeker (physical touch/input) and combined type ADHD (that means hyperactivity AND inattentiveness). Now we have services in place.”
When I took to social media to ask if others had experienced something similar to Garlinghouse, I was inundated with stories.
“I always thought something was ‘off’ but chalked it up to boy stuff,” Rachel, from Cape Coral, Florida, says. “But once [my son] was getting to the point of being sent home from daycare at four years old, I knew my gut was right.” Her son ended up being diagnosed with ADHD, ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), and they are currently awaiting an evaluation for SPD.
Lisa of Eagle River, Alaska didn’t at first suspect her son’s tantrums were signs of something more, but after years of therapy and IEP meetings, it hit her that the tantrums had always been linked to her son’s eventual diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Anna of Hammond, Oregon, says her daughter used to have tantrums that lasted for “hours or even days.” Friends and family would say Anna’s daughter was just spoiled, but Anna knew it was something more. Her daughter has since been diagnosed with SPD and is now receiving treatment.
Nicollette from Irving, Texas said that her son, at four years old, was “destroying his daycare — tearing photos off the walls, throwing toys at kids, knocking down bookshelves, punching himself in the face repeatedly. At home when we tried to punish him, he would laugh or help us load up his toys in trash bags and then sit on his bed like he was proud of himself.” At first his pediatrician thought the behavior issues were due to a lack of discipline. Friends told Nicollette she simply needed to spank her son. But she kept pressing, and eventually her son was diagnosed with ODD and ADHD. Two years later, he’s doing much better. “We got him on medication to help with ADHD so he could focus in school and paid for an in home behavior therapist,” she said. “His ODD symptoms are almost gone. They still flare up, but we’ve equipped ourselves on how to help him.”
Tracey of Lebanon, Missouri said her son had violent meltdowns from before the age of two that lasted hours. “Our first diagnosis was at three, with ADHD. This was only part of it, and I knew. It took until he was six to receive his autism diagnosis.” Tracey said her son is doing well now that he is receiving treatment. She said the turning point for them was finding a good pediatric psychiatrist. “Aside from the occasional battle with hermit tendencies and his need to hoard things, you’d never know he is different. If you have been around autism, you’ll pick up on it. But the majority of people say, ‘I didn’t even realize.’ To which I reply, ‘Cool, we worked really hard to get to this point.’”
These are all instances where a child’s tantrums were indicative of a bigger underlying issue — SPD, ADHD, ODD, autism spectrum disorder. Other potential triggers for out-of-the-ordinary tantrums include anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, a learning disability, or another newly recognized mood regulation disorder called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD).
DMDD is marked by severe, recurrent, lengthy tantrums with anger that seems disproportionate to the issue at hand, and by prolonged anger and irritability that is present most days, beginning prior to a child turning 10. DMDD can overlap with other mood disorders like depression, anxiety, ODD, and bipolar, so experts advise to seek professional help for diagnosis and treatment.
The big takeaway here for parents is that we need to trust our guts. If you feel something more than meets the eye is going on with your child, you are probably right. Tantrums are a normal and expected part of parenting, but prolonged, ongoing, cataclysmic meltdowns that don’t respond to the usual tactics for helping a child manage their emotions are likely a signal that it’s time to seek professional help. Diagnosing and treating any underlying disorder will bring peace to everyone in your family, including your child.