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 banking 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?

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

  1. I cannot stop reading your blog. Thank you. Just reading it makes me feel less crazy and not so alone. We adopted our daughter from an out of state foster care at 5 weeks. I had NO IDEA there was such a thing as pre verbal trauma and that she could have RAD despite being in a loving home at such a young age. Now, she is 14 and her behavior just keeps getting worse and worse. She has rages that make me fearful and so angry because no consequence will stop the verbal and physical abuse we endure. I HATE having to lock up everything and that I can’t leave my 12 year old son home alone with her. I feel I am wasting my money and time each time we walk into another therapist. I am just watching the clock until she turns 18 and I can push her out the door and say “good luck, I did the best I could” But then I will be up all night wondering if she will set the house on fire as we sleep.

    I understand there is a permanent brain malfunction and illogical response to things that don’t go to her perfectly fictionalize plan in her head. I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of electrical brain impulse treatment. Like an electrical dog collar for the brain. So when she starts to amp up because I announce it is time for dinner I can give a little zap to the Amygdala letting it know there is no life threatening response needed. I wish I could go back in time and become a brain researcher. Do you know any adults with RAD? Can they hold jobs? Can they function in society without being in jail?

    Sorry to ramble.

    1. Hi Amy,
      I am so glad to connect with you. I understand completely about feeling alone, desperate, and crazy. This is why I’m going public with my story. Do you have Medicaid? Since your child is an adopted foster kid you should be able to petition the adopting state and this can help you in getting her into a residential treatment facility. Unfortunately, I can’t say these treatment programs have helped my son, but they have protected my other children from prolonged exposure to domestic violence. I share your fears about these kids turning 18. My son will age out at 18 with no job skills and no high school diploma. I wonder where else he can end up except jail, but I feel as though I have no way of preventing that — although I’ve been working like crazy to do so for 12 years. I strongly encourage you to checkout instituteforattachment.org as they understand RAD and its impact on kids and families. I believe their model has great promise and actually has positive outcomes! Raising these kids can be very lonely and difficult so please feel free to contact me privately on my About page anytime if I can help.

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