Why I use the word “rage” and not “tantrum” for my child with developmental trauma

What kind of parent calls the police when her kid has a tantrum? Or, even worse, tries to check him into a mental health hospital? Me.

Every time the cops arrived or we got to the hospital, my young son Devon transformed into an angel. I’d explain that he’d been throwing a terrible tantrum. Yet, his serene affect and puppy dog eyes would belie my words. It was hard enough to ask for help but to imagine the eye-rolls behind my back was humiliating. I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets.

I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets. Click To Tweet

Time and again, I was turned away without the help I so desperately needed because we all know what a “tantrum” looks like—a kid kicking his or her legs, crying and screaming, for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. By calling Devon’s episodes “tantrums” I was unwittingly minimizing what was actually going on and no one was taking me seriously.

These were no tantrums. Devon was:
  • Screaming, spitting in my face, and making himself throw up
  • Ripping his bedroom door off the hinges, and putting holes in walls
  • Punching, kicking, and attacking his brothers and sister
  • Pulling out his eyelashes, and banging his head on the floor

These episodes of extreme behavior were happening several times a week and would often last for hours. I was in over my head and needed help, but because I was using the word, “tantrum,” people thought I was overreacting.

These weren’t “tantrums,” they were “rages.”

When I began to use the correct terminology to describe Devon’s behavior, health care and mental health professionals, even police officers, were more receptive. “Rage” was a magic word that made people pause, listen to my story, and try to help. Instead of brushing me off, they called in psychiatrists and social workers. They made referrals for local services. They stopped treating me like I was just a high-strung mother.

If your child’s behaviors are extreme, way beyond being a tantrum, your child may be having rages too. “Kids with developmental trauma can tantrum but they can also rage,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “A child has a tantrum to attempt to get his way but it is contained. A rage is out of control and stems from the child’s fear and anger. It’s irrational and almost dissociative.” It can be difficult to tell the difference between a rage and a tantrum, especially when your child’s episodes have increased in severity and length gradually over time.

Here are some distinguishing hallmarks of a rage:
  • Rages are explosive

  • Rages feel scary and out of control

  • Rages last longer than a few minutes

  • Rages become physically violent and aggressive

  • Rages may include acts of self-harm

  • Rages often end in destruction of property or harm to others

These behaviors are not normal for a child of any age. If children acts out in these extreme ways, they need real help. Parents need help, too.

So, how does a parent get help? How do they get someone to understand the seriousness of the situation? They need to adequately describe and use the word “rage” when talking to therapists, pediatricians, and other professionals. The word “tantrum” paints a picture that is nothing like the extreme episodes the child experiences. When they start with, “My child has rages…” and then describe specifically what the episodes look like, how long they last, and how frequently they occur, people seem to listen more closely.

“Rage” is a word that works.

Has this worked for you? Are there other words that “work” you can share?

Published by:

Williams, Keri. “Home.” Institute For Attachment and Child Development, IACD, 14 Mar. 2018, instituteforattachment.ong/rage-not-tantrum/.


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