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Do You Have a Chronically Irritable Kid? Here’s What You Should Know

What could be behind the overreactions, tantrums, meltdowns and more

Published on: June 01, 2021

girl lying on her side screaming in a tantrum

Does your child … 

  • ... melt down at the suggestion of doing homework?
  • ... yell or scream when it’s time to turn off the video games?
  • ... have a tantrum when things don’t go as expected?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. Chronic irritability in kids is one of the most common complaints that we hear from parents. Irritable kids tend to go from 0 to 100 on the anger scale, leaving their parents feeling exhausted and as if they are constantly walking on eggshells.  

Chronic irritability in kids can be a warning sign for a rocky developmental course.  
Kids with chronic and severe irritability are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and stress as they grow up. They are more likely to have social, school and family problems. Many chronically irritable kids have symptoms of anxiety, if not a full-blown anxiety disorder. Many of these kids may also have ADHD.  

Why do some kids fly off the handle more readily than others?  

Science has shown us that some kids may have brains that are wired to be more reactive to certain situations. Probably the most common type of trigger is getting blocked from an experience that the child finds rewarding. Being told “no” to more video game time or to that second popsicle can spark an unexpectedly dramatic reaction. For irritable kids, reward systems intended to motivate them can backfire. If the child expects the reward but fails to actually earn it, there might be a big meltdown.  

Sometimes it isn’t even a blocked reward that creates frustration, but simply a deviation from what a child expects. Some kids have knee-jerk negative responses even to fun activities if it means a change from what they thought was going to happen.  

Another common trigger is when a child has to do an activity that threatens self-confidence. For example, a struggling reader may have a meltdown when told it’s time to do the nightly reading-aloud assignment. Such children might expect that they will feel bad about themselves while doing the assignment. Other kids might overreact to situations if they perceive that something is unfair or if they lose at something. School playgrounds, where social dynamics are complex and competition abounds, can be challenging arenas for irritable kids.  

You may be wondering whether to be concerned about your child’s irritability or temper outbursts.

Many kids get cranky when they are tired or hungry. This is a common pattern that, in and of itself, is not a cause for concern. Also, irritability typically peaks during the preschool and kindergarten years.  

Here are some indicators that point to a problem that may need to be addressed:

  • Regular tantrums or temper outbursts after the age of 5.
  • Aggressive behavior beyond the preschool years.
  • Temper outbursts or meltdowns that occur at school.
  • Inability to cope when it’s time to put electronics away. 
  • Persistent irritable mood.  

There have been fantastic developments in the field of child psychology for treating kids with chronic irritability.  

There are many researchers who are devoting their careers to finding treatment solutions for children who struggle with being quick to anger. Published research is showing that many irritable kids can benefit from state-of-the-art therapy that combines both child and parent components. These treatments involve ways that kids can learn to better cope with frustrations and disappointments. Parents can become more confident as they learn positive, effective skills that help them respond to and prevent meltdowns in their children.

This article was originally published by Child and Teen Solutions

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