Toddler Tantrums and Teen Depression:

Are they related?

During the past few years, increased warnings about teen depression has created anxiety in parents of children of all ages. Several weeks ago, the news was consumed by stories of two celebrities’ suicides.

Most parents with young children have been through the “terrible twos,” a label that comes from heightened tantrums at that age. Some of those same parents have seen those tantrums persist into the threes, fours and beyond, and some children have added “anger issues” to their repertoire.  The majority of parents don’t connect behavior in early childhood with teenage angst and certainly not to depression. Many parents think, “Oh, I know my child has a few of these issues, but I have been assured that he’ll outgrow them. It’s only a phase.” The problem is if these tantrums persist, the child probably will not outgrow this tendency. Research over the past 10 years has shown that if a child has persistent meltdowns and excessive anger, and if he or she is not treated with specific skill building, these issues will persist.  As these children mature, their less resilient reactions to stress may lead to chronic anxiety and then depression. Yes, there is a connection between tantrums and teen depression.

When Tantrums Become a Problem

Children under 10 years of age show only symptoms of their behavioral struggles, and the diagnoses of these same struggles appear in the teen years as chronic anxiety and depression with the complications those maladies bring.  Many parents of teens look back and realize the denials and excuses of the first decade were just that, and years went by before their child’s struggles received attention. If you have a child with anger and tantrums that concern you, please don’t begin the litany of “But he’s such a sweet kid, he only acts up for attention. It’s only when she’s stressed”, etc. Stress is just a function of being overwhelmed by a problem she can’t solve, and ignoring or explaining away the problem won’t help the child.

Signs and Symptoms

What are there signs and symptoms of these behavioral disruption symptoms that signal early childhood red flags and opportunities to build problem solving skill sets? First, tantrums, and then angry outbursts and meltdowns. These signal that your child is overwhelmed and struggling to solve a problem, but doesn’t have the resources to do it on his own. Your child needs help. If you describe your child as challenging, high maintenance, high needs, strong willed, defiant, resistant, spoiled, difficult, always angry, temperamental, then you have a child in need of help now. If you notice that your child is often overwhelmed or fearful to the point of shutting down or not functioning, you have a child in need of help. This vulnerability to adversity leads to anxiety.

Temperament Characteristics

There are several temperament characteristics that lead to this overwhelmed, shut-down condition. Most common is the less adaptable child who tends to need some lead time to transition to a new activity and certainly to a change of plans. They are anti-change, or what I call “No Surprise Kids.”  Another characteristic of the less-adaptable child is that it is impossible for the child to, “Do it now!” These kids are always asking what’s next, and then what happens after that. These less-adaptive kids need to know exactly what is going to happen into the future. If they don’t know what is going to happen, it causes anxiety. This all stems from the inability to solve a problem with multiple answers. Non-adaptive children have one way or one answer to solve a problem and when that doesn’t happen, they don’t know what to do. It seems like they are being resistive or defiant, but they aren’t. What looks like being spoiled or having to have their way is simply only having one answer to every problem. This can be resolved, and their anxiety relieved if they are taught how to solve problems using multiple answers. It is that simple. You can teach your child to state the problem, list possible solutions other than their one answer and try other solutions.

Another form of nonadaptability is perfectionism, which often becomes a problem in preteens. The fixation that something must be perfect is the result that they have one answer to a problem and worry if the one answer doesn’t work. This creates anxiety because no one is perfect, so at some point, their single answer is bound to fail. Early signs of “pre-perfectionism” is the child who can’t lose a game, that must be first, can’t fail and has to have what seems like their way or else. These are signs of a less-resilient child. Failure is a good experience. It teaches children that they can survive with failure and nothing catastrophic happens. It forces them to learn to find other options. It is what we do after we fail that is important.

There are several other behavioral traits that can overwhelm children and create anxiety. Some children have only one; some have many traits that contribute to their anxiety.  Each can be strengthened with training.

Helping Non-Adaptive Children

Stress and the resulting anxiety become an everyday occurrence in these struggling kids who have not received help. It’s not that they are anxious that is the problem. It’s what we do or don’t do next that is the problem. How can we help children who are “stuck” become more adept at working through difficulties? Again, we’re back to resilience. If you roll with the punches, if you have more answers than one to the problems, you’re less likely to get bogged down, shut down, angry or non-functioning. As children grow, they are experiencing more and more adult-type problems. There is a natural increase in stress. If children don’t learn to handle small anxieties when they are young, (solve problems) then they don’t automatically or suddenly learn to manage them when they’re teenagers. So, when the hormones start increasing and the tensions increase about grades and friends and all the other things that occur in adolescence, a resilience response becomes a paramount skill.

Teaching children to problem solve, to be able to accept second- and third-choice answers and not be completely attached to one and only one outcome gives a valuable gift to your child. That is the parent’s formula to help prevent anxiety and depression for the long term.

Dr. Hudson recently retired Clinical Professor of Pediatrics OU Tulsa and author whose book The Not So Easy Child will be available this fall.

Categories: Health (Departments)