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Is It a Temper Tantrum or Something More Serious?

Sep 01, 2022
mad little girl

Defiant behavior among toddlers and young children (commonly known as “the terrible twos”) is a normal phase of child development. Children might throw temper tantrums or have rapid mood changes. They want to do things by themselves. Their favorite word is “no.” Similar developmentally appropriate behavior often shows up again during the teen years. Teens may rebel against household rules or act frustrated or angry. Some of this behavior stems from hormonal changes associated with puberty, as their bodies and minds develop.

Temper tantrums are usually triggered when a child is frustrated, tired or hungry. As children learn more appropriate ways to communicate their wants and needs, and when clear limits and behavioral expectations are consistently set, these outbursts tend to become less frequent. However, some children continue to struggle with aggressive or impulsive behavior. Sometimes these actions may pose a threat to their safety or the safety of others. For some people, the behaviors can continue through childhood and even into adulthood.

Disruptive, Impulse Control and Conduct Disorders

For some children, their frequent disruptive behavior may be more frequent and severe than same-age peers. In such cases, a mental health professional (e.g., social worker, counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist) may diagnose the child with a disruptive, impulse control, or conduct disorder. This grouping of behavioral health disorders can include elevated levels of aggression, behavioral and/or emotional regulation difficulties, and noncompliance. Two common diagnoses include conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

What Is Conduct Disorder?

Children and teens diagnosed with conduct disorder are generally characterized as having a disregard for others, may show a lack of remorse for their behavior, and typically display serious physical aggression towards people or animals, illegal activity such as vandalism or stealing, or intentional acts of violence such as bullying or threatening others. Younger children may push, hit, or bite, while teens might bully others, pick fights, or vandalize property.

What Is Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

Children diagnosed with ODD display repeated defiance of rules and may respond to adult and peers in a hostile manner. They may argue with adults or authority figures, frequently lose their temper over small requests for compliance, and often blame others for their mistakes. While most children will act this way at some point, the difference with ODD is frequency and severity of the behaviors.

How to Find Help and Hope

Only a qualified health care practitioner can diagnose these conditions. Because many of these behaviors may be learned and inadvertently reinforced, most effective treatment methods include parent-focused behavioral therapy as a large component of the intervention. Medication may also be prescribed in some cases. There are things you can do to support your child at home.

Be positive. Rather than focusing on negative behaviors, help your child focus on what they do well. Praise them immediately when they make good choices and provide meaningful rewards for desirable behaviors such as compliance, even for simple tasks such as putting on a coat before going outside.

Be patient. Your child may not be able to control their behavior at first, but you can control your reaction. Set clear, simple expectations for your child and make sure these expectations are something they can actually meet so they feel successful when making an effort. Remind them what happens if they misbehave, but also the rewards they can earn for compliance.

Be present.

Make sure your child knows you are there to support them. Let them know you are available to talk. Remind them that you love them and are there to help. Don’t be discouraged or take it personally if your child pushes back when you make an effort to support them. Children will often push back when praise is provided are the ones who need this praise the most to help build their self-esteem.

Be consistent.

The best interventions are the ones that you can actually do on a regular basis. Set simple goals and reward plans to make it easier to track progress, such as focusing on one or two behaviors at a time.

If you have concerns about your child’s behavior or mental health, speak with their pediatrician.

Featured Expert

Michael Flores
Michael Flores, PhD
Big Lots Outpatient Behavioral Health

Michael Flores, PhD, is a clinical psychologist within the Big Lots Outpatient Behavioral Health at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He works directly with children, adolescents, and their families in assessing and treating a wide variety of mental health concerns.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.