Is My Child Crazy? The Hard Truth About Childhood Tantrums

is my child crazy?

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Parents ask me all the time if their kid is bipolar. “Is my child crazy?” they’ll ask in desperation. The child can’t sit still, or they’re defiant, or they throw fits like a demon.

The truth is that behavioral problems usually result from problems at home, but many parents prefer the comfort of a label.

Some think that a formal diagnosis gives them a pass. It’s not anything I’m doing wrong, they think — something is wrong with my kid.

But that’s hardly ever true.

When parents refer to their kids as “bipolar,” what they are really trying to describe is childhood tantrums or mood swings. Little Billy is pleasant one second, a monster the next. So, when a worried parent asks “is my child crazy,” the answer is almost always no.

There are a few things I’d like to clear up here because what these parents are seeing has more to do with poor coping skills than actual disruption of mood. To that end, let’s explore a concept called “Frustration Tolerance.

is my child crazy
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What is Frustration Tolerance?

Frustration Tolerance is our ability to deal with stress without falling to pieces. Adults, generally, have refined this skill, though we all know a few who just totally lose their minds anytime there is even a slight disruption in routine. And with children, this is pretty much their default mode until they learn to hone that skill.

Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT), then, is an inability to tolerate stress, change in routine, or unpleasant feelings.

Parents who report “mood swings” are more likely seeing the effects of LFT. I’d argue that this is great news, as bipolar is a debilitating condition that ruins lives, whereas LFT is a result of inconsistent parenting, which is both avoidable and fixable.

Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference. — Virginia Satir

Let’s be honest here. It’s not like these mood swings are random. They are situation-specific. Little Billy is playing on his tablet and Dad tells him to put the thing down and clean his room. So, he throws a fit.

That isn’t a mood swing. It’s actually two things:

First, it is an example of LFT. Billy was getting his way. A stressor was introduced (Dad’s directive to clean the room). It provoked an unpleasant feeling (anger) and because Billy has limited coping skills, he threw a temper-tantrum.

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Second, this is manipulation in its highest form. Children come out of the womb with an expert-level understanding of manipulation. There’s a hungry cry, a lonely cry, a tired cry, a bored cry — and they are incredibly effective.

What new parent doesn’t leap across the room to tend to their infant’s every need? This is developmentally appropriate and totally fine.

There’s a point at which this sort of behavior becomes a cause for concern. As children develop language skills, they no longer need to throw tantrums to get what they want.

So why do they continue to do it?

The answer is because they can. This, by the way, is why children do all the things they do. Because they can. They do all the things that they do until the consequences outweigh the rewards. And this is where tantrums become a function of ineffective parenting.

The Variable-Ratio Schedule

Kids also throw tantrums because they work. Period. It’s simple cause and effect.

There’s a point where the behavior begins spontaneously. But before you know it, the behavior is ingrained, like a bad habit, and we all know how hard it is to break bad habits.

Parents can unwittingly reinforce these maladaptive behaviors by the manner in which they respond to them. The basic rule of thumb here is to not respond in a positive manner to negative behaviors. This only reinforces their usefulness to the child.

If every time a kid whines he gets a toy, why in the world would he ever stop that behavior?

Allow me to illustrate my point with a quick scenario:

Becky, 4, is at home with her Dad. Becky has grown bored playing with her dolls. Dad is trying to watch football.

Becky: Daddy, look at my doll. Her name is Hermione.

Dad: Honey, Daddy’s watching the game.

Becky: *Throws fit*

Dad: *turns down the volume, gets off couch* Alright, alright, come sit in my lap.

End scene.

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Do you see what happened ? Becky wasn’t getting her needs met. She throws a fit. Dad responds to said fit. Becky’s needs get met.

Children throw tantrums because they work.

Let’s look at a better way to handle that situation:

Becky, 4, is at home with her Dad. Becky has grown bored playing with her dolls. Dad is trying to watch football.

Becky: Daddy, look at my doll. Her name is Hermione.

Dad: Honey, Daddy’s watching the game.

Becky: *Throws fit*

Dad: *turns down the volume, gets off couch* Becky, what is it that you want? Use your words. You are a big girl.

Becky: I want to play dolls with you.

Dad: Thank you so much for being a big girl and using your words. I tell you what, can you give Daddy two minutes and then I’ll turn off the TV and play dolls with you?

Becky: Okay, Daddy.

End scene.

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I’m sure you can see how this exchange was different, but let me explain why this works better.

First, Dad is insisting that she use age-appropriate skills to advocate for herself. Namely, her words.

Second, he reinforces the idea that she is not a baby.

Third, Daddy does what Becky wants, but when she asks in a way that is appropriate and respectful.

Fourth, he still maintains the power in the situation by having her wait for a time that he specifies.

Fifth, he provides her with a small level of autonomy — namely, she gets to “agree” to his terms, which creates ownership.

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And finally, he provides a moment for her to develop her frustration tolerance.

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That’s a lot of good parenting in a 30-second exchange. But it’s this type of intentional parenting that increases frustration tolerance and decreases maladaptive behaviors. The challenge here is that parents must do it consistently. 

Children are like the Viet Cong. They will probe for and exploit any weakness they find, and this is where parenting gets difficult. The moment you cave, it reinforces the rewards of throwing a tantrum.

In Psychology, this is called a variableratio schedule of positive reinforcement. There are several ways to reinforce behaviors, and the variable-ratio is the most effective. It also happens to be the type of behavior that is most difficult to extinguish. It’s a concept all parents need to know.

Consider the slot machine. It’s simple to use and pretty addictive. How many times do you have to pull that lever to win a prize? The answer is, you don’t have any idea, but as long as you keep pulling that lever, eventually you will win.

Pictured: the variable-ratio in action.

So, how many times does Becky have to throw a tantrum in order to get her Dad to cave? She doesn’t know. But she does know that if she keeps at it, eventually he will do whatever the Hell it is she wants him to do.

This isn’t evil or malicious or even calculated —  but it’s what children do. It’s up to parents to hold the line so that the child eventually figures out that their strategy no longer yields the desired results.

At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the positive involvement of parents. — Jane D. Hull, former Governor of Arizona

So… Is My Child Crazy?

Childhood Tantrums. Mood swings. Fits. Meltdowns. Whatever we choose to call them, they all stem from the same thing. Kids throw tantrums because they lack the skills to articulate their needs in a healthy manner.

Kids throw tantrums because they lack the skills to regulate their own emotions. But mostly kids throw tantrums because they work.

I have this conversation with parents all the time. Sometimes they are quick to accept their role and other times they resist. The ones who accept it realize that a change in strategy is what is best for their children.

The ones who resist see it is a reflection of their own failures, but it’s not the parents are doing something wrong, per se. It’s that they don’t understand the basics of behaviorism and operant conditioning. Which is totally understandable.

My suggestion to parents is simple: don’t beat yourself up, but do be mindful about the cause and effect nature of things. Be careful that you are reinforcing the types of behaviors you want and punishing the types of behaviors you want to extinguish.

It is possible that the behaviors parents see in their children are the result of a more complicated mental health problem. I’ve written about that before (see above).

But my suggestion would be to first look at how behaviors are rewarded and/or punished in the home before turning to psychopharmacology and other, more drastic interventions.

Of course, safety always comes first, so if you feel like the problem is getting out of hand, consider enlisting the aid of a professional. Starting with your pediatrician is usually a good option.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.


Randy Withers, LCMHC
Randy Withers, LCMHC
Managing Editor, Blunt Therapy

“It’s hard to make self-care a priority if you’re always on the go. That’s why I recommend BetterHelp. It’s affordable, confidential, and effective online counseling.”        

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About The Author

Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers is the Managing Editor of Blunt Therapy. He's a Board-Certified Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Addictions Specialist, and Author living in North Carolina.
Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers is the Managing Editor of Blunt Therapy. He's a Board-Certified Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Addictions Specialist, and Author living in North Carolina.


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4 thoughts on “Is My Child Crazy? The Hard Truth About Childhood Tantrums”

  1. Great wisdom. Mental health issues can manifest in young children, but as parents, it is so hard to know when to worry. I love the point about throwing tantrums because they work. TRUTH!


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