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8 Signs It’s More Than a Discipline Problem

For years, friends, family and professionals told Lucy Pritzker her young son, who was prone to meltdowns, was simply willful. “He’s manipulating you,” they said.

“But it wasn’t about our parenting. It didn’t make sense,” Pritzker said. “I knew him on a level other people didn’t. He’s a good boy. His meltdowns weren’t about him getting his way. He’d be so apologetic afterwards. You could see the pain he was putting himself through because he felt so badly about his behavior.”

Turns out Pritzker was right. Now, at age 11, her son has been diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability as well as PDD-NOS, an autism spectrum disorder.

According to the CDC, 17% of children have a developmental or behavioral disability – and less than 50% are identified as having a challenge before they’re old enough to start school. Frequently, parents tune in before pediatricians do. So how do you know if your child’s behavior stems from a discipline problem or a developmental delay?

“All tantrums have a communicative intent,” says Michelle Suarez, MS, ED, founder of Kaleidoscope Interactive, which offers families therapeutic intervention and behavioral support. “The key is to understand the whys.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Matthew Cruger of The Child Mind Institute in New York City agrees.

“Parents need to ask, ‘Is their child misbehaving because their child is a child, with limited experience understanding why their parents are setting developmentally appropriate rules? Is their child simply trying to get his or her way?’,” Dr. Cruger said. “Or is their child experiencing some kind of anxiety because they are pushed to do something they would prefer to avoid? These can be typical reasons why a tantrum occurs.”

Here are some questions you can ask yourself during a temper tantrum to help determine whether it’s manipulative or potentially a developmental issue.

1. You don’t understand the cause of the tantrum.

Manipulative: Your child pitches a fit when you say, “No, I will not buy you a toy.”

Atypical development: Your child cannot explain why he is upset – and you can’t figure it out. “Parents become in tune with their child’s reactions. You know when your child is fussy and upset, that they are tired,” said Dr. Cruger. “But if you are uncertain about or unable to predict your child’s reactions to stimuli, that may be a sign that something is amiss.”

2. Bribes or positive reinforcements don’t work.

Manipulative: Before you enter a grocery store, you say to your child, “You can have a lollipop if you behave.” And she behaves.

Atypical development: If/then statements often don’t work. “With young children, you can have an incentive for them to focus on to guide their behavior,” Dr. Cruger said. “But for children with atypical development, a trigger – like the proximity of strangers or too loud noise – might disrupt their ability to keep that cue in the forefront of their minds.”

3. You can’t stop the tantrum.

Manipulative: Your child hollers for a toy. You give in and buy it – and the tantrum stops.

Atypical development: You give in and buy it – and the tantrum keeps going. “Some kids get so emotionally aroused that the situation transitions from the toy to needing help calming down,” Dr. Cruger said. “Others tantrum for a long time because they have difficulty controlling their impulses or reactions – which would enable them to calm down and manage their response.”

4. Your child doesn’t feel satisfaction after the tantrum.

Manipulative: Your child is happy with the result of her tantrum. She got her toy.

Atypical development: Your child is exhausted from the tantrum. And may no longer want the toy. “One of the markers of atypical development is how rigidly a child wants to hold onto a set routine for doing things in order for them to feel calm,” Dr. Cruger said.

5. Your child can’t calm herself down when upset.

Manipulative: Your child knows to find mom or dad to feel better. And does.

Atypical development: Your child throws a bike. “One of your jobs as a parent is to teach your children how to soothe themselves,” Dr. Cruger said. “Atypically developing children may have a hard time regulating their reactions based on the direction of their parents because on a brain basis, they are not tuned in to social relationships the same way.”

6. You notice your child’s environment triggers the tantrums.

Manipulative: Your child screams and kicks to try to get you to comply to a request.

Atypical development: Your child becomes overwhelmed by feelings or his environment, like a change in plans or noise, and may cover ears/hide. “If it’s those sort of stimuli, or being forced out of a routine that a child has a preference for, that are provoking a reaction, that may be a good reason to consider an evaluation,” Dr. Cruger said.

7. Your child’s teacher has concerns.

Manipulative: Your teacher says your child is well-behaved at school.

Atypical development: “Some kids with atypical development function very well with adults, but not with peers,” Dr. Cruger said. “That’s where teachers’ input can be very valuable. The teacher won’t be the person making a diagnosis, but they might be highlighting concerns for you about how things go.”

8. Your gut tells you there is something more going on.

Manipulative: You know in your heart you shouldn’t give in, but you do.

Atypical development: Your gut says your child is different. “Your gut is a good instinct in many cases. Parents often say, ‘We always knew something was a little different,’” Dr. Cruger said. “They’re really describing at an early age their child was much less responsive to their interactions and involvement.”

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