Home » Blog » Parenting » When Your Child’s Normal Emotions Are No Longer Normal

When Your Child’s Normal Emotions Are No Longer Normal

childhood trauma: invalidation hurtsIf there’s one thing that you can be sure about, it’s that if you have kids they will throw tantrums. Emotions can be overwhelming at any age, and when young kids have big emotions they are unable to manage, their inability to process these emotions is often manifested in behavior such as tantrums, meltdowns and acting out.

What is easily defined as misbehavior is often the manifestation of a child’s inability to deal with his or her emotions in an appropriate way. In other words, tantrums and meltdowns often mean that your child hasn’t yet learned to deal with emotions, and there is evidence to support these views. Indeed, a growing chorus of voices is saying that helping your child to develop his emotional intelligence can help decrease “misbehavior”. What’s more, an emotionally intelligent kid grows into an emotionally-intelligent adolescent, which means less social, behavioral and psychological disorders beyond the childhood years.

It is now widely accepted that helping your child develop her emotional intelligence is not about shielding her from difficult emotions. One study that sought to identify the home environments that favor the development of emotional intelligence found that kids who were allowed to experience conflict and difficult situations developed more emotional intelligence than those who did not have opportunities to experience this conflict. In other words, your child will stand a better chance of developing her emotional intelligence when she is in dispute situations.

Fostering your child’s emotional intelligence therefore means providing her with a safe environment within which she can experience difficult emotions and find a way to deal with them in a socially appropriate manner. It is about teaching her that emotions such as anger, anxiety and fear are normal, and that everyone experiences them, and helping her identify strategies that can help her deal with those emotions.

Children’s emotions, however, can also point to more serious issues. One study examined 279 three-to six-year olds and found that the type of tantrums children experienced differed depending on whether the kids observed were healthy or depressed/disruptive. The researchers identified several patterns that may be associated with mood disorders.

Drawing on the study cited above, here are 5 red flags to look out for if you have doubts about whether or not your child’s tantrums and meltdowns are healthy.

1. Persistent tantrums

Tantrums are a normal part of childhood, but when they are persistent they may point to more serious issues. The cited study found more than five tantrums a day signaled a mood disorder. Indeed, regular tantrums are also one of the things therapists focus on to diagnose problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder.

2. Excessive tantrums

Excessive tantrums mean that your kid’s reaction is disproportionate to the situation. Signs of excessive tantrums include aggressiveness toward parents or other caregivers or destructive behaviour (breaking or throwing objects, kicking objects or others, hitting wall, etc.). Displaying violent behavior 90% of the time (during tantrums) may indicate a problem.

3. Self-injurious behavior 

Unlike healthy kids, kids with a mood disorder are more likely to harm themselves when they have tantrums. This behavior may include biting or hitting self, head banging, and holding breath.

4. Long tantrums

There is no specific “tantrum duration.” Your child might have a tantrum lasting five minutes one day, and 15 minutes the next. However, if your child consistently has extended tantrums lasting longer than 25 minutes, this may indicate more serious problems.

5. Inability to calm himself

If your child is unable to calm himself after a tantrum and consistently requires assistance to calm down, this may signal an underlying issue.

Don’t let your mind go to the worst-case scenario, if your child displays the behavior above. While getting in touch with a specialist for further evaluation is always a good idea, remember that many things affect your child’s behavior and identifying the triggers is a first step that can help deal with even the hugest tantrums. There are many simple and age-appropriate resources that can help foster your child’s emotional intelligence and teach him, for instance, to identify strategies he can use to calm himself.

When Your Child’s Normal Emotions Are No Longer Normal

Sanya Pelini, PhD

Sanya Pelini holds a Ph.D. in educational research. She shares tools to help foster children’s emotional regulation on her blog and is the author of The Emotions Kit, a toolkit with practical resources to help kids learn to identify and manage strong emotions such as anger and anxiety in a socially appropriate manner.

One comment: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Pelini, S. (2018). When Your Child’s Normal Emotions Are No Longer Normal. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 16 May 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.