Temper tantrums, though completely normal and to be expected and part of toddlerhood (especially), are a thorn in the side of every parent. Kids, especially when they're still very young, are unable to process their emotions what adults would consider a healthy, socially acceptable way. Though most tantrums and outbursts are just par for the parenting course, and unavoidable at best, there are times when you need to pay attention to your child's anger, as it could be an indication that more is going on than just a misunderstanding or a common frustration.
All of us have dealt with an embarrassing public meltdown, thanks to our usually well-mannered children. While an unnecessary tantrum in the middle of the frozen food section is considered normal, there are times when your child's tantrum might mean more than them an irrational reaction to the color of their favorite cup. Many studies have shown that severe and persistent tantrums, especially when continued beyond a certain age, could be an indication of a sensory disorder. Sensory disorders range in their severity, and happen when the nervous system receives messages from the senses and is unable to turn them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Some children with sensory disorders are considered to be on the Autism spectrum, but not all kids who suffer from sensory processing disorders are considered autistic.
Sometimes, children are just hypersensitive to their surroundings. Things like background noises, fear of crowds or physical contact, and an irrational sense that they're in danger are all symptoms of a possible sensory disorder. Furthermore, kids yelling, hitting, and having outbursts on a frequent basis may have Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), or could be mimicking unhealthy behavior they're exposed to on a daily basis, like the emotional responses of the people who care for them or scenes they regularly see on television.
A child's anger and outbursts are most often considered, and are, "normal," and just part of developing and learning and adjusting to the world as they experience more of it, but there are certain red flags that parents need to be on the look out for, just in case there's more going on and a child needs additional tools and support. The following eight items don't necessarily mean that a child is having health or sensory issues, but they do merit a parent's extra attention.
When They Can't Control Their Anger
Kids get upset, sometimes quite easily. That's not really an issue, but when they get so upset that they can't calm down, you can't (and shouldn't) ignore them. This doesn't necessarily indicate that there's a problem, but if they can't calm down in a relatively short amount of time, they could end up harming themselves or others. They could even hyperventilate to the point of passing out. Kids who are unable to control their anger, beyond what is considered a "normal" tantrum, are sometimes tested for things like Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.). If your child consistently struggles to control their anger, it might be a good idea to speak with their physician, just to be safe.
They Have Frequent Outbursts
Frequent outbursts (we're talking major outbursts, not tantrums) could be a sign that your child is carrying a "full tank" of anger, according to a report from Michigan State University. If your child seems to always be in a state of anger or turmoil, they could be reacting to their surroundings. It could be related to crowds or noises or even boredom and something is distressing them. Finding out exactly what is setting them off isn't always an easy task, but figuring out the cause could help to eliminate some (if not most) of the outbursts.
They Hit Things Frequent
A lot of kids go through a slight "hitting phase," but above a certain age the hitting needs to be addressed more seriously. Typically, after the age of two, children are most competent at expressing their emotions, and thus, less likely to use hitting as a means of communicating how they're feeling. Of course, every child is different, but if a child continues to hit things as they get older, especially when they start school and could direct their swinging to and at other children, something more might be going on. What exactly is going on could be a number of things, ranging from being tired, to being over stimulated, to a severe lack of routine or adult supervision.
They Hit Themselves
When a child hits themselves they're usually attempting to express their anger, not just with their surroundings but usually with themselves, too. When a child is unable to express themselves verbally, they will sometimes hit or bite themselves. It's important, when this happens, to pay attention to exactly when he or she hits themselves. Was your kid upset over not getting their way? Was it at the end of the day when they were exhausted? Does your child go to daycare? Sometimes kids who hit or bite themselves might have been hit or bitten by another kid at daycare. There are many reasons a child may do this, but the important thing is that when they do, you stop them, gently, of course, because if the behavior continues, they could eventually cause themselves harm.
They Deflect Their Anger (Above A Certain Age)
When a child is old enough to attend school, and able to communicate well, but they are continuing to deflect their anger by pointing fingers or placing blame for their behavior elsewhere, they're starting to develop a habit. Of course kids are going to try and place blame somewhere else (hell, adults do this, too) and sometimes pointing the finger at someone else is reasonable and legitimate, other times it's because the child is creating a mentality that keeps them from accepting responsibility for their actions. This isn't causing them any major harm in the moment, but allowing them to deflect their anger long term could have a negative impact on their ability to evolve into a responsible adult.
They Consistently Struggle To Get Along With Other Children
Learning social skills is easy for some kids, but others find it to be quite a struggle. Not all kids are social by nature, so making friends and learning what is and it not okay in a social setting can be a bumpy road. However, if a child is really struggling to make friends, but getting along peacefully with other children in general, there might be more going on than meets the eye. Many kids who have been diagnosed with a sensory disorder, or A.D.D have more trouble developing relationships with other children. In children with A.D.D., social maturity typically happens later in their life than it does in that of their peers. That can cause them to feel isolated or lonely or even angry and resentful, especially towards the other children. It might just be that your child is shy, which is quite common, but pay attention when they're around other children (once they've reach a sociable age) and take survey of how they interact with others. A child who is simply shy usually won't react to other children with any sort of anger or hostility.
Their Anger Is Consistent With A Particular Person, Event, Or Thing
If your child has certain triggers that send him or her into an angry outburst, it's important to pay attention to what those triggers are. For example, if it's a dog that causes them stress, they may be afraid of dogs (whether something has happened to them or not). If you take them to the playground and they shut down, it might be because they're afraid of the slide, or because a kid picked on them and they're unable to properly recover from that experience. If something happened to them at daycare that made them scared or upset, they might get get angry when you drop them off. Relating how they feel to particular places, events, or things is normal, but if one of those things is causing them legitimate fear or harm, you need to take notice so that you're able to address their feelings.
When Nothing Calms Them Down
Again, tantrums are a part of every parent's life, at some point and usually for an extended period of time. It's when they become particularly prevalent, or even uncontrollable, that a parent needs to take a deeper look into the situation. If a child is upset, for a reason you're unaware of, and they're unable to calm themselves down, they might be trying to tell you more. Children who suffer from varying degrees of a sensory disorder could be set off by something you would never think twice about. Background noise, crowds, bright and busy places, or even a simple change in their routines, can throw them off and cause them to act out in anger. For children with sensory disorders, a change in schedule can be quite difficult because the signals their brain is sending and receiving really does make them feel with a greater intensity. If your child is having trouble calming themselves down, do your best to let them know that they're safe and that you're there for them. If it happens consistently and interferes with their every day lives, you might want to speak with their doctor.
Anger in kids could mean so many different things. It might mean that they hate carrots or pants or nap time, or it might mean that something more is going on that needs to be addressed. Navigating your child's actions, and the reasons behind them, is just part of parenting. It definitely doesn't make it easy, so if you need to reach out and ask for help, especially from a licensed physician, don't hesitate to. Trust me when I say, we all need help from time-to-time (or rather frequently because #Solidarity).