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Published on April 18, 2019

An Expert Parenting Guide to Dealing with Toddler Tantrums

An Expert Parenting Guide to Dealing with Toddler Tantrums

My daughter who is now seven, was two-and-a-half years old when we visited an indoor playground. I vividly recall her complete meltdown and tantrum when I said it was time to go home. She threw herself with full gusto onto the padded floor of the play area and began to wail with tears streaming down her face.

At the time, I had twins who were about six months old. I had already loaded them into their car seats and snapped the car seats into the stroller. I was ready to head home and get everyone down for a nap, so I could nap as well. At that moment when my daughter began to wail, I felt like I wanted to cry too. Short on sleep, hungry, and with my hands full with three children ages two and under, I was feeling overwhelmed.

When my toddler’s meltdowns had happened at home, I didn’t feel overwhelmed or flustered. However, when this particular meltdown happened in public, which became the first of many, I wanted to cry, or make her somehow stop her tantrum, or just hide from the dozen or so people watching this situation unfold as their sweet children played happily on the indoor climbing structure.

I tried to reason with my daughter. That didn’t help at all. If anything, that made her wail even louder causing some eyebrows to go up around me. I could almost hear them thinking “can’t she control her child.” My response would have been “well obviously I can’t!” Nobody said a word to me though.

When the reasoning didn’t work, it led to me pleading with her to get off the ground and walk to the car with me, so we could have a nice lunch at home. I then tried to bribe her. I said if she went to the car, I would give her candy. I had remembered that there was a sucker in the side door of my car from the pediatrician’s office that I hadn’t let her have the day before. I probably would have given her $100 in that moment. I just wanted the tantrum to stop.

She continued with her wailing, thrashing on the ground, and crying for several more minutes. Nothing I was saying or doing was working. In the end, I picked her up and put her under my arm and carried her surf board style out of the building while pushing the double stroller with my other hand. Another parent held the door open for me. By this point, I could see other parents were feeling sorry for me in this situation.

After this public meltdown and a few more later that week, I started to read up on toddler tantrums and how to handle them. I found techniques that worked! It may not necessarily ease my embarrassment when they happened in public, but I learned how to handle the tantrums in the best way possible to simply get through the toddler tantrum stage.

We may not be able to eliminate all toddler tantrums, but we can learn ways to minimize them. Below are helpful tips for all parents of toddlers.

Ignore the Tantrum and Don’t Give in!

Your toddler is throwing tantrums because they are looking to get your attention or get something they want. More often than not, they are doing it because they want something.

In my daughter’s case, she wanted to stay at the playground longer. If I had given in and let her play longer, I would have been teaching her that if she has a temper tantrum, then she gets to stay longer.

Never give in to the child. You are reinforcing their tantrum throwing behaviors when you give them what they want. For example, if you are out shopping and your toddler throws a fit because they want a candy bar at the checkout, then giving them the candy bar to make them quiet only teaches them to have a tantrum the next time you are in a store — your child now knows that they can get the candy bar if they have a tantrum.

Don’t give in to their tantrum by giving them what they want, even if it is something small and inconsequential to you. If you have said no, stand your ground. Caving in and giving your child what they want when they have a temper tantrum reinforces the bad behavior. You will end up with a child who throws even more tantrums because you have taught them through cause and effect that tantrum throwing gets them what they want.

Do Nothing

Your child needs to learn that temper tantrums get them nothing. Some children do it because they are seeking attention. Give your child attention, but not while the tantrum is happening.

If you recognize that they are throwing temper tantrums because they want more attention from you, then make an effort to give them attention at a later time, when they aren’t throwing a tantrum.

When the child is in the midst of a tantrum do nothing, say nothing, and ignore their tantrum.

I learned very quickly that in the case of my daughter’s public tantrums, I could get them to stop by continuing to pack up our items and move toward the door with the intention to leave. I didn’t respond to her tantrum. Continuing my actions let her know that I was serious and I was leaving the building. It was amazing how she would quickly pick herself off the ground and sprint towards us, fearing that she would be left behind.

I never left my children anywhere, but if needed, I would go outside and stand on the other side of the glass door, watching her and simply waiting until she finished her fit and was ready to get up and come home with us.

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When she learned that her tantrum did not get her what she wanted and that she got even less attention from me while she was doing it, her behavior changed.

Avoid Trying to Calm The Child

Instinctively, we want to soothe our child and go to them to try to calm them down during a tantrum. This is not effective with temper tantrums, especially if they are doing it for attention.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, make all efforts to avoid calming the child down. If they are doing it for attention, then you are rewarding the temper tantrum by giving them attention. It communicates to the child that a tantrum will get your attention.

Solve the attention problem after the tantrum by spending quality time engaged with your child. However, don’t give them attention, even by trying to simply calm them, during the tantrum or you are reinforcing the bad behavior.

Warn Them in Advance

I also learned to be proactive in situations where tantrums had happened previously. I began giving my daughter a five minute warning at the playground. She was told on each visit to the playground when she had five minutes left to play and that we would leave immediately if she complained or throw a temper tantrum.

This was a warning that I gave very clearly every time we went to a playground. I always said this in a firm, yet kind tone “You get five more minutes to play and then we have to leave, if you complain or throw a tantrum then we have to leave immediately.” This worked amazingly well!

Letting them know what is expected is what kids want.

Keep Them Safe

If the child is a danger to themselves or others, for example, because they are throwing toys across the room during their tantrum, then physically remove the child and take them to a safe and quiet spot for them to calm down.

Some children need to be held so that they don’t harm themselves. Holding them gently, yet firmly, because they are hitting themselves, pulling their own hair, or slamming their body into walls, is important to do immediately when you see any self- harm take place.

Hold them and tell them you will release them when they have calmed down. Say it gently and with empathy while holding them just firmly enough so that they cannot harm themselves or others.

There is no need to be aggressive or squeeze the child in this process. Take action calmly, but with the intention to cease their harmful activity immediately.

After the Tantrum

Acknowledge that the child has complied by ending their tantrum. Giving a praise such as “I am glad you calmed down” will help to reinforce the ceasing of the bad behavior.

Not rewarding their tantrum is crucial in this process. If you give in and give them what they want and then they stop the tantrum, you are thereby praising them when they don’t deserve the praise because you gave into what they wanted. In doing this, you are defeating yourself.

Don’t give them what they are throwing the tantum about. For example, if it is because they want a certain toy and another child has that toy, then do not give them the toy because of the tantrum.

Praise them for stopping the tantrum once they calm themselves down. If they finish with their tantrum and you haven’t given in to what they were asking for, then praise them for calming themselves.

For example, if they have completely calmed down and the other child is now done with that toy, then you can give it to the child when they are completely calmed. Have them practice asking for the toy nicely. Let them know they get to play with the toy because they asked nicely, they aren’t throwing a tantrum, and because they have completely calmed down.

Get Professional Help if Needed

If you feel like your child’s tantrums are excessive or you are having difficulty handling the tantrums, then talk to your child’s pediatrician. They may be able to guide you.

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There are also medical reasons that can cause a child to throw tantrums more often. For example, they may have speech problems and they are frustrated that they cannot communicate with words what they want to express. This frustration can turn into tantrums.

Chronic pain or an underlying medical condition can be causing the child distress and discomfort which can lead to tantrums as well.

If you feel that the temper tantrums are beyond your ability to handle as a parent, or you feel that there may be some other reason for the continued tantrums, then speak with your child’s pediatrician.

Tips to Avoid Tantrums

There are some practical parenting methods that parents and caregivers can utilize that will help to diminish the occurrence of toddler temper tantrums. These tips may not entirely eliminate tantrums, but they can help to minimize them for occurring.

Giving Choices: The Love and Logic Model

Love and Logic parenting methods[1] are golden. In this method of parenting, it is taught that parents should give their child choices every day, all throughout the day.

Allowing the child to make choices gives the child a sense of control. For example, allowing a decision for which book to read at bed time whereby the parent offers two choices that they don’t mind reading. Another example is offering them two options of outfits to wear in the morning.

The parent chooses two options that are both acceptable and allows the child to make the final decision on which outfit they want to wear. This decision making helps the child feel that they have some control over their life.

When children are told where to go, what to do, and how to do it, with little or no flexibility they will act out. That acting out often comes in the form of tantrums with toddlers. They are at a phase where learning to be independent is part of their development. If their independence is completely crushed because they aren’t allowed to make any decisions, then they will act out.

Create Decision Making Opportunities

As parents and caregivers, we can create opportunities for decision making all throughout the day. By presenting options, all being acceptable to the parent, the child feels empowered and has a sense of independence that is natural in their developmental phase.

If you are experiencing tantrums daily and you have a controlled home environment, yet you can’t quite pinpoint the problem, try giving more choices to your child. They can’t tell you that they want choices and are working on developing their independence.

Developmentally children are seeking to become more independent little humans during the toddler phase, and offering them choices helps facilitate that need for independence.

Trying out choices will help them feel like they have some control of their life and activities. However, if the choices lead to tantrums because they don’t like the options presented, then you let them know that those are the options and if they don’t chose, you will have to choose for them.

Follow through and make the choice for them, if they continue throwing a temper tantrum. Don’t reward their bad behavior by allowing a choice. Take away the choice in that circumstance and moment in time because of the tantrum.

When it comes time to offer a decision later in the day, perhaps for example, offering them juice or water with their lunch, remind them that if they throw a tantrum, then you will make the decision for them.

Be Calm and Consistent

Be consistent in your parenting. When you give in to a tantrum one day by, for example, giving them the candy bar at the checkout to make them stop crying and the next time you yell at them, you are confusing your child.

By remaining calm, telling them what is expected, and following through each time they are on the verge of a tantrum or they are throwing a tantrum, you help eliminate the tantrums.

Consistently ignore the tantrum until they have stopped. Do not give in. Remain calm and do not yell or raise your voice. It makes things worse when you get heated in the midst of their tantrum. Count to ten or one-hundred if necessary.

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If you must remove the child from the situation, do so calmly and without berating them. Don’t give attention to the temper tantrum, other than praising them when they calm down on their own.

Ignore the actual temper tantrum while it is happening. This doesn’t mean leave them alone. You don’t want them to harm themselves or others, so stay close, but act unfazed by their tantrum.

Distractions

Your child may have some triggers. You may already be fully aware of what they are. It could be leaving the playground, going past the toy section while out shopping, or taking away items that are not safe for your child to be playing with.

Whatever the trigger may be, you can distract your child creatively and thereby avoid a temper tantrum. You have to remember that this temper tantrum phase is just that…a phase. You have to ride out the phase, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to avoid the tantrums using some creativity.

If you know that the back of the store where the toys are located will lead to a tantrum, then avoid that section of the store. If you know that your child likes to play with your phone and you don’t want them to play with your phone, but taking away the phone leads to a tantrum, then get creative.

Be prepared with a different object or toy to distract your child. Have this toy in your purse or in the car, so that you keep the child content, avoid the tantum, and without sacrificing your phone. Maybe you have an old flip phone in a junk drawer. The next time you are out doing errands and your toddler tries to reach into your purse for your phone, which is in the cart next to them, simply remove the purse and hand them the old flip phone.

If they throw the phone because it’s not the one they wanted, then put it away and say “I’m sorry you didn’t want it, now you won’t have anything to play with.” Teach them that their bad behavior won’t get them what they want. Try the flip phone another time (at a later time and different circumstance) and remind them that they don’t get your phone but they can have this phone, which is now theirs.

Act excited about the phone you are giving them, while also letting them know that if they throw it, you will put it away in your purse like you did the last time.

Be creative about distractions. They may not all work, but at least you tried something different. When you do find something that works, for example, you sing a little song to distract your toddler when you have to take away something they shouldn’t be playing with, like an extension cord or the dog food, then keep doing it.

When you find a distraction that works, keep using it until it no longer works and then try something new.

Ensure They Have Plenty of Sleep and Food

Children tend to act out when they are hungry or tired. If your toddler is not getting enough sleep at night, they will be prone to temper tantrums. If your child is having a tantrum and you realize that they are badly in need of a nap, then when they have calmed down, get them home and in their bed for a nap.

Toddlers are highly reactive when they haven’t had enough sleep or they are hungry. Toddlers are not equipped with the skills to express how they feel. When they are tired or hungry, it makes them upset, but most of the time they aren’t able to express that they are tired or hungry, instead anything can set them off into a temper tantrum.

Keeping toddlers on a good sleep schedule and keeping them feed every couple of hours, meaning meals with healthy snacks between meals, will help to minimize tantrums that occur because they tired or hungry.

Give Attention through Quality Time

Some temper tantrums occur because the child wants attention. It would be great if your toddler could approach you and say “I need some attention from you, I am feeling distant from you, so I need to you spend some quality time with me today.” Toddlers won’t say much, if anything at all. Instead, they act out.

Temper tantrums are often the easiest and quickest way to get adult attention. You can help to prevent this from happening by spending time with your toddler.

Get on the floor and play with their toys alongside of them. Read them books at bedtime. Give them hugs many times a day and let them know that they are good boy or good girl and that you love them very much.

These small actions throughout the day help your child know that you notice them. It is those moments of pointed, quality time and attention that keep their need for attention satisfied.

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Praise Positive Behaviors

If you fail to praise the positive behaviors, you may end up with a child who acts out and has tantrums so that they can get a reaction and attention from you.

Negative attention is better than no attention in the mind of toddler. Give them positive feedback and praise when they do something good.

Perhaps it was sharing a toy with a friend at the playground, they put a puzzle together on their own, or they adequately washed their hands before meal time. Whatever the small act was, if it was something you can praise them for, then say it. It will help them feel loved and that your attention is on them for that moment.

When you do this all day long, you are giving them positive feedback and reinforcing good behavior. It is a win-win situation.

Help the Child Better Communicate

A toddler’s vocabulary is limited. They have a hard time telling you what they want, even when they know exactly what they want. Perhaps they want juice, but that word isn’t in their vocabulary yet.

Sometimes asking your child to show you what they want can help bridge the lack of vocabulary. Tell the child that if they can’t tell you, they can try to show you what it is that they want. Let them know that you care and want to know what they are trying to express.

Tantrums often come from toddlers because they can’t express themselves or they feel that their parents aren’t trying to understand them. Again, it goes back to feeling ignored or lack of attention.

If you can see your child is wanting something, but you don’t know what it is exactly, don’t just brush them off and move on because you could likely be setting up the situation for a toddler tantrum. They get frustrated and temper tantrums is how they let it out.

If they do start the tantrum, let them have their tantrum, ignore it; once it is done, seek to help them communicate and assist you in understanding what it is that they want.

Final Thoughts

Temper tantrums are not a pleasant experience for parents, but are nonetheless a normal part of toddler development.

Most toddlers will have tantrums between the ages of one and three. Some extend beyond that age as well. The frequency of tantrums varies from one child to the next.

There are ways for parents to handle the temper tantrums that help to eliminate the behavior rather than reinforce the bad behavior. Ignoring the child during their temper tantrum is one of the best techniques to discourage temper tantrums.

There are also parenting behavior that can help reduce or minimize the occurrence of toddler tantrums. Some of these parenting behaviors include spending quality time with their child, praising good behavior that the child exhibits, and ensuring that the child gets plenty of food and sleep.

There is no magic cure for temper tantrums. They are part of the developmental process and a phase of life that toddlers go through.

The key for parents is to create an atmosphere where tantrums are minimized and positive behaviors are reinforced.

Featured photo credit: Mike Fox via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Love and Logic Parenting Methods

More by this author

Dr. Magdalena Battles

A Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault

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Published on September 26, 2019

How to Help Your Child with Behavior Problems

How to Help Your Child with Behavior Problems

Before I talk about ways to help with child behavior problems, I want to share a story with you…

Little Suzy recently started Kindergarten. Within the first several days of school, the teacher noticed that Suzy was quite defiant when asked to follow instructions in the classroom. The teacher would ask the students to gather on the rug for circle time and Suzy would say no, and refuse to stop playing with toys in the corner of the classroom.

Suzy has been erupting at school and yelling at other children. The school contacted Suzy’s parents because a situation escalated at school this week and Suzy hit a classmate over the head with a Lacrosse stick while they were playing outside. The bystanders said it wasn’t an accident and that Suzy hit their classmate hard on the head several times with the stick because the classmate wouldn’t give Suzy the ball.

Her parents are at a loss. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know why Suzy is acting this way. They have difficulty at home getting her to follow directions. She seemed to not respect authority when they take her to church or anywhere where she is being supervised by other adults, the feedback that they receive is that Suzy doesn’t listen and refuses to follow instructions. She seemed to hear what they would say, but her response is always “no, I am not doing it.” Situations often escalate into Suzy having a temper tantrum.

It was also noted by her parents that Suzy has not made any friends during the first month of school. She was doing things to annoy and even bully other children. Instigating arguments and always trying to be right seemed to be her pattern of behavior. She lacked empathy toward her classmates and even blamed them for things that she did. For example, she wrote curse words on the blackboard and blamed another student. She fails to take responsibility for her negative behaviors.

The school referred Suzy to a child psychologist the second month of school based on the her behaviors at school including refusing to follow instructions from her teacher, yelling, bullying, not making any friends, and beating a classmate with a Lacrosse stick. The parents are hopeful that the psychologist can understand why Suzy is acting like this and that they can get her the help that she needs.

After the psychologist met with Suzy, her parents, and the teacher had some answers. The psychologist asked if the parents had ever heard of the term “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” The parents said that they had not. The psychologist went on to explain that this disorder, abbreviated as ODD is defined by the presence of at least four of the following behaviors for at least 6 months and these behaviors are noticeably more severe than their peers’ behaviors:

  • Argues with adults
  • Often defies adult authority and rules
  • Deliberately annoys others
  • Blames others for their mistakes or behavior
  • Often loses their temper
  • Often exhibits anger, irritability, and/or hostility
  • Often bothered by others
  • Acts vindictive

The parents agreed with the psychologist that Suzy had more than four of these behaviors present. They said that the behaviors were present while in preschool as well and that they could see these problems increasing over the past year. They had hoped that a different teacher would be able to better reign in Suzy’s behavior. They felt that it was perhaps the preschool teacher that was too soft on Suzy. Now they realize that they have a real problem, since the behaviors have persisted for over a year and under the direction of a new teacher and school.

They commit to a plan to help Suzy. The psychologist refers the parents to a clinician who has parent training classes that will help them learn skills to handle the ODD. The child is entered into a therapy program that includes bio-feedback methods that teach the child emotional self-regulation.

One year later, the family is happy to report that Suzy is like a different child. She knows how to control her emotions. Her parents also know how to implement structure and discipline in their household which helps reinforce Suzy’s good behaviors. Suzy is now thriving in school and has friends. The early intervention for Suzy helped with this positive outcome, along with parents who were committed to working alongside their daughter to make the consistent changes they all needed to make to this happen.

Suzy’s case is just one example of a childhood behavioral disorder. There are several major behavioral and emotional disorders that can show up in childhood. It is important that parents have a general knowledge of these disorders and their symptoms, so they know when they need to seek professional help.

When in doubt, seek out the help of a mental health professional who specializes in childhood disorders, as they can assist in properly assessing your child. If after seeking out professional help you find that your child does not qualify for a diagnosis, the mental health professional can help provide referrals to help with the issues that your child is having. For example, your child may have issues with controlling their temper, but they don’t qualify for an ODD diagnosis. Parents can still be provided with information on parenting groups or trainings that can assist with learning how to handle this issue with their child. Their child could also be referred to play therapy, or another mode of therapy that can help the child learn to control their temper and process their emotions.

In this article, you will understand more about child behavior problems and what you can do to help children with behavioral disorders.

What are Some Behavioral Disorders?

The DSM is a diagnosing manual used by mental health professionals to assess behavioral and emotional disorders. The most common major behavioral and emotional disorders that can occur during childhood, which are defined and categorized by the DSM include:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Bisorder

Below you find a brief description of each of these disorders. Having a general understanding of these disorders can help parents assess whether there is something wrong with their own child’s behavior.

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Symptoms of a Behavioral Disorder and Diagnosing

Diagnosing of a behavioral disorder requires a professional who is educated on the DSM. The DSM is the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”. This manual provides mental health professionals with guidelines and diagnosing criterion for every mental health disorder.

If you think that your child may be suffering from a behavioral disorder, please talk to their primary care doctor and ask for a referral to see a psychologist. A psychologist who specializes in diagnosing behavioral disorders will be most helpful in providing you with answers and directions for specific treatment methods.

If you can’t get a referral from your child’s doctor, don’t stop. You are your child’s best advocate. If you think that they have a legitimate issue, then be their advocate and find the help that they need from professionals. See a different doctor, or contact a psychologist directly and explain your situation.

There is help available, you have to be the advocate for your child and it begins by getting them appointments to see professionals who can best help your child.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Let me share another story with you… Dillon is a healthy boy with lots of energy, a cheerful attitude, and seems to be smart. He is now in the third grade and has started to have major issues at school. Increasingly, he is having problems focusing in class. He is always fidgeting with items from inside his desk. Pulling out pens to click continuously, to the annoyance of his teacher.

Dillon is always losing his assignments, bus pass, and backpack. His thoughts seemed to be scattered in lots of directions and when it comes time to focus on a particular activity in the classroom, he has an inability to focus in general. His actions and inattentiveness are affecting the other students in the classroom. It is also affecting his ability to learn.

Previously, he was getting solid high marks in school. Currently, his grades are slipping and he is at the bottom of his class. His grades are more of a reflection of his lack of focus, losing assignments, and problems following directions. His inability to focus, problems with listening, and his fidgety behavior are greatly interfering with his classroom attentiveness and subsequently negatively affecting his grades.

His parents describe his behavior for the past year as hyperactive and inattentive. Dillon is a classic case of ADHD.

Healthline explains that there are three types of ADHD: Inattentive, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.[1]

Behaviors associated with Inattentive ADHD include missing details, getting bored easily, difficulty focusing on a single task, loses personal items often, difficulty organizing thoughts, problems listening, moves slow or appears to daydream often, processes things more slowly than their peers, and trouble following directions.

Some of the behaviors associated with a predominately hyperactive-impulsive ADHD diagnosis include squirming, difficulty sitting still, talking incessantly, playing with small objects with their hands often even when it is not appropriate, act out of turn (not waiting), blurting out answers, difficulty participating in quiet activities, constantly on the go, and impatient.

Most people experience a combination of systems and are not exclusively hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive. There is not a single test alone that determine an ADHD diagnosis. Instead, it is an assessment of patterns of behavior. The behaviors must also be determined to be disruptive to the individual’s ability to function on a daily basis. A psychologist or a psychiatrist can assess whether a child has ADHD. A psychiatrist is able to prescribe medicine for a child with ADHD.

Ultimately, it is up to the parent whether they want their child to take a medication for this disorder. There are many children who learn to manage their symptoms of ADHD through regular therapy.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

The symptoms of this disorder and the criterion for diagnosing were discussed earlier in this article. The treatment for ODD often includes therapy and training for parents and the child. Treating the child alone is not typically effective. The parents play a huge role in the life of their child, so their ability to parent them in a manner that works to correct the ODD behaviors and symptoms is imperative.

A conduct disorder can develop if a child with ODD does not receive proper treatment. Conduct disorder is another DSM diagnosis, but this one is more often seen in teens who previously were diagnosed or showed signs of ODD. Conduct disorder is like taking the ODD to another level.

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Empowering Parents explains the difference between ODD and conduct disorder:[2]

A key difference between ODD and conduct disorder lies in the role of control. Kids who are oppositional or defiant will fight against being controlled. Kids who have begun to move—or have already moved—into conduct disorder will fight not only against being controlled, but will attempt to control others as well. This may be reflected by “conning” or manipulating others to do what they want, taking things that don’t belong to them simply because “I want it,” or using aggression or physical intimidation to control a situation.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Another girl, Kate, began to show signs of developmental delays around 12 months of age. She was not speaking any words yet, and her social interactions seemed to be different than other children her age. She would not make eye contact with people in general, including her parents. She rarely smiles and doesn’t show interest in interactions from others. By the age of 2, her parents describe her to be withdrawn and in her own world. At this age, she is only saying one word responses and her vocabulary is limited to only a handful of words.

While at play, she is very focused on one object. Currently, she is fixated on a toy drum and has no desire to play with or even hold another toy. She carries the drum everywhere and is fixated on this object.

Kate can often be found rocking from side to side for no explicable reason. She has been doing this behavior increasingly, especially if her daily routine is altered in any way. Having her nap time an hour later or not going to daycare on a regular weekday will upset her and cause a meltdown. Then, she will rock for hours. The effects of the meltdown last for hours, whereas most children recover after five minutes.

She is detached from human interaction, which is why her parents sought assessment for autism at age two. She is a child who has ASD. Her parents were wise in getting her assessed at a young age, as they are able to provide her with therapies and interventions very early in her development.

There is a great variation or spectrum of behaviors and severity of symptoms associated with ASD. It is called spectrum for a reason. Because some children can have a mild case of ASD, being considered high functioning. Whereas other children with an ASD diagnosis can have more severe symptoms such as mutism and sensory meltdowns on a regular basis and subsequently would be considered low functioning.

The Mayo Clinic explains that other disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome, which used to be a separate diagnosis, are now grouped under ASD.[3]

Autism spectrum disorder includes conditions that were previously considered separate — autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder. Some people still use the term “Asperger’s syndrome,” which is generally thought to be at the mild end of autism spectrum disorder.

When a child has autism, the symptoms usually appear at a young age and are especially noticeable as they become ages 2-3.

Autism Speaks is an organization that helps to research and provide solutions for people diagnosed with autism. They provide a wealth of information for parents and caregiver on their website, to keep people informed. Here is some pertinent information from Autism Speaks:

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today.[4] We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

Diagnosis and treatment for autism is not a one size fits all. There is no single test that can be given to diagnose this disorder. It is an evaluation process and an overall assessment of the individual’s behaviors and development. The treatment can include a variety of modalities including occupational therapy, play therapy, speech therapy, and more. Treatment is dependent on the identified developmental issues and problematic behaviors that the child is experiencing.

To read more about autism, check out this LifeHack article about the signs of autism.

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Anxiety Disorder

Let’s take a look at another case. Sam has been increasingly agitated and anxious over the past year. He is now ten years old and has begun to have difficulties sleeping. He is anxious about his school work, and he discontinued soccer because it caused him such high levels of anxiety.

His parents decided to take him to see a psychologist because he no longer wants to go to school. His parents have to prod, encourage, and threaten him in order to get him to school each morning. His anxiety levels seem to be increasing over the past year. His extreme levels of worry are affecting every area of his life. He is no longer enjoying life because everything in his life seems to cause him anxiety.

His parents learn from the psychologist that Sam is likely suffering from GAD, but it is treatable and Sam will be able to resume activities in the near future with improved coping skills to better handle the stress of life.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a condition that children can have if they exhibit extreme worry and angst about their family relationships, friendships, school work, and/or extra curricular activities. With individuals diagnosed with GAD, their daily life is affected by their anxiety and it can negatively affect their sleep, relationships, schoolwork, and ability to participate in social activities. Some other symptoms of GAD include irritability, easy to upset, headaches, stomachaches, feeling overwhelmed with worry, and avoidance of school or social activities that cause the anxiety.

There are other types of anxiety disorders that can be experienced in childhood. These can include panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and phobias. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by assessment from a mental health professional who will utilize the DSM for diagnosing criterion.

Therapy is the first course of action for children with anxiety disorders. Many children with anxiety disorders benefit from medication (typically short term 6 months to a year). Each child is different, as is their treatment plan. If a child has an anxiety disorder, the parents should work with the child’s doctor and a mental health professional to properly diagnose the child and create a treatment plan that is customized for this child’s situation.

For many children who are properly treated for their anxiety, they are able to overcome the anxiety entirely. Each child is different, but professional help can increase the probability that the child will overcome their anxiety and be able to resume normal activities. A reasonable time period for treatment outcomes, and to see dramatic positive results, is approximately six months to one year. This means that the child has weekly counseling sessions with a mental health professional that specializes in treating anxiety disorders in children in order for these kinds of results to be seen.

Depression

Here is another case study. Sally is a 9 year old who is having a hard time following the death of her brother. He was killed in a bike accident when he was hit by a car over a year ago. Sally seems to have lost all joy in her normal activities. She once enjoyed artwork and gymnastics. Now she has no interest in participating in these activities. When asked why she doesn’t want to do them anymore, her response is “what is the point?”

She is very irritable toward her parents. When they try to help her “get happy” by taking her ice-skating and to the county fair, she is crabby, irritable, and moody the entire time. Her parents express to a psychologist that they just can’t seem to make her happy. They also inform the psychologist that Sally doesn’t play with her friends anymore, she has trouble sleeping at night, and has a dramatic loss of appetite.

Sally is suffering from depression. She had not attended any counseling following her brother’s death. His death caused her to fall into an emotional depression. With counseling, she can overcome the depression and learn to cope with loss in the future.

Childhood depression is characterized by feelings of loneliness, sadness, and/or hopelessness. Childhood depression often presents very similar as adult depression. However, one major difference is that the sadness in children is often projected as irritability. Depression affects the whole child including their behavior, social interactions, thoughts, physical health, and mental well being. For a complete listing of symptoms associated with depression in children, see my other article on the signs of depression in children.

Depression in children is best diagnosed with a mental health professional. They will be able to assess the child according to the DSM diagnosing criterion to determine whether the child is clinically depressed. The treatment plan involves therapy when a child is depressed. In some cases, medications are recommended as well.

Each child is different, so they should be assessed on their individual behaviors and presenting issues for a customized treatment plan. Many children who are provided with proper treatment for their childhood depression are able to overcome their depression and go on to lead normal, healthy lives.

Bipolar Disorder

Another story I want to share with you is about Linda. Linda is a 13 year old girl who has just entered puberty. Her parents have noticed that over the past year, Linda’s behavior is either depressed or manic for stretches of days and/or weeks. They describe her moods to be cycles. For example, they say for the past week she has been high energy, with no need for sleep, hyper focused on a science fair project, and is easily irritated with everyone around her. They said that the previous two weeks before this high energy phase, she appeared very sad and depressed. They said that these cycles have been going on for more than a year and are disruptive to Linda’s school, social, and family life on a daily basis.

After further assessment by a psychologist, it is determined that Linda has bipolar disorder. Her parents elect to treat her with weekly therapy and medication.

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Bipolar disorder in children will typically emerge around adolescence, however, there are instances of children being diagnosed younger. Children with this disorder will exhibit cycles of manic behavior and then cycles of depression. The signs of bipolar disorder are similar in children and adults, however, as WebMD explains, there is one major difference between childhood and adult bipolar disorder:[5]

One of the most notable differences is that bipolar disorder in children cycles much more quickly. While manic and depressive periods may be separated by weeks, months, or years in adults, they can happen within a single day in children.

When a child is in the depressed phase of their bipolar disorder, they will exhibit the signs of depression, as explained previously. When they are in a manic phase, they exhibit behaviors such as irritability, decreased need for sleep, mind racing, extremely talkative, and easily distracted. They also can become hyper focused on a particular activity.

Many of these same behaviors are exhibited with children who have ADHD. This is why a professional assessment is needed for diagnosing. They can help determine whether there are cycles of depression and mania present that fit the diagnosing criterion for bipolar disorder.

Treatment can include therapy and often includes medication combined with consistent therapy. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but with help, the symptoms can be managed.

What Causes a Child to Have Behavioral Problems?

A combination of genetics and environmental factors cause behavioral problems in children.

For example, a child who has parents going through a divorce and is already predisposed to bouts of anxiety, may develop GAD because of these circumstances and the predisposition. It depends on the child, their ability to cope in the situation, and their genetic makeup.

It is not a debate over nature versus nature. Most clinicians believe that both play a role in the development of behavioral disorders in children.

How Do I Fix My Child’s Behavioral Problems?

Professional help is imperative when a child has serious behavioral problems. If you are uncertain, then the best policy is to talk to your child’s primary care doctor. They can provide you with insight and referral if needed.

Don’t be afraid to take your child to get evaluated because you don’t want them to be labeled. Labels don’t have to be permanent. However, behaviors and problems that are left untreated can become more permanent than any label. For example, a child with ODD that goes untreated can develop into a teen and young adult with a conduct disorder that lands them in prison. All of which can be avoidable if treatment is sought during childhood.

The purpose of a diagnosis is so that professionals know how to develop a treatment plan. For example, they know that children with ODD respond well to biofeedback methods and cognitive behavioral therapy methods. Following a diagnosis, the psychologist or psychiatrist treating your child can refer you to professionals that provide these treatment modalities.

Professionals also know that parental training is especially helpful in ODD cases. Parents can be taught ways to minimize the symptoms and behaviors associated with ODD. However, if the child doesn’t get a diagnosis for their problem, their likelihood of getting treatment for their specific problem is diminished greatly.

Final Thoughts

If you know that your child has problematic behaviors, please get them assessed by a professional, preferably a psychologist or a psychiatrist who specializes in diagnosing children. They can help direct you to the counseling and resources for your child’s specific problem.

Leaving a condition untreated is liking giving permission to the disorder to flourish and thrive. It will likely not change or improve through hope alone. Professional help is best for children who have serious behavioral problems. Don’t take on your child’s problems alone. There are professionals who want to help you, your child, and your family go from surviving to thriving.

If you don’t know where to even begin finding the right kind of help for your child, then start with contacting your child’s primary care doctor. Make an appointment to discuss the issues and problems that your child is experiencing.

Treatment is not a one size fits all. Finding professional help will best assist your child in getting the treatment plan that best fits their situation.

Featured photo credit: Caroline Hernandez via unsplash.com

Reference

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