When a Tantrum isn’t Really a Tantrum

When a Tantrum isn’t Really a Tantrum

Written by Rachel Tomlinson
When a Tantrum isn’t Really a Tantrum
How Mental Health Issues may present in Children

All kiddies have tantrums. Our little people are prone to emotional outbursts, dysregulation, mood swings and even aggressive or other challenging behaviours. This is because their brains haven’t put on the finishing touches in the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that develops last and is responsible for logic and reasoning…For most of us our brains are still developing well into late adolescence and our early 20’s. This is one reason children and young people don’t always respond to reasonable requests. Or often seem irrational and even respond with intense emotions to everyday circumstances and events.

However, the normal development of the brain and subsequently the emotional and social development of our children can sometimes mask other, sometimes more serious problems. Mental health conditions and corresponding symptoms in children are often very similar to normal behaviours expected in childhood. I am sure we have all witnessed tantrums, clinginess, emotional outbursts, fear of new people or places. And it’s certainly true that most children will exhibit these behaviours at some point…Which makes identifying more serious mental health conditions all the more challenging.

So, when is a tantrum not really a tantrum?

Well, firstly it’s important to identify some of the behaviours to watch out for. But please be aware that all by themselves these can also be considered very normal actions and reactions in our children. Mental health conditions also present differently in adults than they do in children. Namely because children aren’t yet equipped to explore their emotions verbally. So often they can’t really express their needs or internal processes and thoughts in the same way an adult might.

So, what kind of behaviours might you be looking for?

Often the behaviours we would describe as challenging or even “naughty” (not my word, but one that is often bandied about) are the ones that can signify there is something else occurring for our kids.

Depression Presentations in Children are often typified by:
  • Low energy, and difficult to motivate
  • Losing interest in things they usually enjoy
  • Difficulty concentrating/listening
  • Negative self-talk
  • Withdrawing from social situations/friendship groups
  • No interest in eating or alternatively over-eating
  • Changes to sleep patterns – too much sleep, or fitful sleep
  • Irritation and agitation 
  • Often sad or difficult to soothe
Anxiety Presentations in Children are often typified by:
  • Seeking reassurance often
  • Trying to get others to do things (that they are capable of doing themselves)
  • Physical pain or symptoms like; headaches, tummy aches, feeling dizzy
  • Disinterested or avoidant of trying new things
  • Excessive fears and worries
  • Clinginess
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty getting to and or staying asleep
  • Prefers to watch than to have a go
Before you Panic…

If you think your child displays some of these behaviours, every single one of these behaviours can be considered normal. I mean, depending on the kind of day we are all having, we might display some or many of these behaviours. So please don’t worry, ups and downs in resilience and mood are very normal aspects of being a human. These normal behaviours don’t need to be addressed with a professional. However, the point I’m wanting to get across is to watch for when these normal behaviours start to impacting your child’s life. Or represent a marked change from their “usual” behaviours. These prolonged or intense behaviours are flags that your child needs support. This list of behaviours does not form a diagnosis. However, they are ways that your child might externally express their distress to you.

As a parent you are the best equipped person to identify this and what “normal” or any deviation from “normal” looks like in your child. You are also the expert on your family and the needs of your child(ren). So, if any of these behaviours persist or become quite intense and impactful on your child or your family, then I would certainly consider that you explore this in more depth with a trusted health professional.


Rachel is a Registered Psychologist and parenting expert who has worked extensively with children (birth-18) and families in general counselling, play therapy, women’s refuge, education settings, children’s care homes, domestic violence and trauma counselling. She has a book “Teaching Kids to be Kind” due out in November 2019 

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