When should I be concerned about my child’s tantrums?

“How do I know if my child’s tantrums are a sign of a bigger issue? When should we be concerned?”

By Dr. Kimberley Bennet




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“How do I know if my child’s tantrums are a sign of a bigger issue? When should we be concerned?”

Tantrums are a tricky business because they are misunderstood by so many parents (and, dare I say it, professionals).

One of my roles involves supporting parents to recognize their child’s tantrums and meltdowns as an indication of a dysregulated nervous system. To remind parents that the behaviours we see when a child is distressed are rarely intentional. Tantrums and meltdowns usually happen when a child is experiencing a stress-response and have gone into fight-flight-freeze. Children often display “attacking energy” during a stress response, so behaviours like hitting/ kicking/ biting can be observed and are not necessarily indicative of any underlying concern or “bigger issue.”

Tantrums and meltdowns don’t necessarily end after the “terrible twos” as many parents expect. They actually peak at age 3! The frequency, intensity and duration of tantrums can be impacted by many factors including lack of sleep, illness, big life changes or stressful life events (for example, welcoming a sibling, moving house, or starting school).

For our more sensitive children, their nervous systems can become dysregulated more frequently, more intensely, and until children are a little older than their more resilient peers. So, whilst parents often notice tantrums decreasing to around once per week after their child turns four, more sensitive children may meltdown regularly until they are around age seven.

I hope that this helps to normalize tantrums which unfortunately are often given a “bad rap.” They are absolutely a normal part of early childhood due to our children’s underdeveloped brains. We should expect to see young children acting impulsively, erupting emotionally, and lashing out physically during this time. These displays are not indicative of pathology and do not mean that you are failing as a parent.

All that said, I am not sure that your question can be answered on the internet. If you are concerned that your child’s tantrums are a sign of a bigger issue, I always advise parents to have a chat with the child’s family physician who are best placed to carry out developmental screenings through questionnaires and checklists, and who may offer an onward referral for further assessment or support for your family.

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