Reader Question: Our 3-year-old son is very sweet, loving, and generally well-behaved. Occasionally, however, he breaks into a huge tantrum during which he becomes uncontrollable. The word “possessed” comes to mind. He will suddenly snap from being sweet to being a demon and then back to being sweet and loving again. These tantrums don’t occur very often, but when they do, they are frightening. We try to be consistent with our discipline but are at a complete loss where this is concerned. I’ve heard that young children can be bipolar. Is that a possibility? In any case, can you shed some light on this for us?
The diagnosis of bipolar disorder of childhood or early-onset bipolar disorder is not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. It was popularized in The Bipolar Child (Broadway, 2007), authored by psychiatrist Demitri Papolos and his therapist wife Janice.
As pediatrician Bose Ravenel and I explained in The Diseasing of America’s Children (Thomas Nelson, 2009), the diagnostic criteria proposed by the Papoloses describe fairly typical toddler behaviors. Those behaviors, even when they “cluster,” are not in and of themselves anything to be concerned about in this age child. That is especially the case when, as in your son’s case, only one diagnosing behavior is present and that behavior occurs infrequently.
Given that you describe your son as generally sweet, loving, and well-behaved, then I would chalk his occasional tantrums up to toddlerhood. They are occurring not because he’s possessed (Disclaimer: I am not an official exorcist, but if your son is possessed by demons, then so are many, if not most toddlers) but simply because toddlers believe that what they want, they deserve to have. In short, toddlers are little narcissists. Hopefully, parent discipline will “exorcise” that belief from the child in relatively short order, but traces of it remain in all of us, to one degree or another, throughout life. People who never get over it are called undersocialized, narcissistic, sociopathic, egomaniacal, or just plain insufferable. A fair number of them have to be removed from society and spend their lives behind bars.
But fear not. I doubt that your son is headed for a life of crime. And as of yet, he does not qualify as a brat, that designation being appropriate only after a child’s fifth birthday and requires more than simply occasional tantrums. Firm, consistent discipline will eventually prevail, believe me.
In that regard, as soon as your son begins one of his outbursts, before it becomes full-blown, put him in his room. For this age child, cutting the door in half, re-hanging it as a “Dutch door,” and turning the lock around prevents escapes. (Do not, I repeat, do not lock a child this age behind a full door!) Regardless, put him in his room (drag him kicking and screaming if you must), walk away, and let the hurricane run its course. If my experience serves me well, your son’s cure will take four to eight weeks.
Above all else, be calm. That’s what authentic authority is all about.