Managing extreme outbursts

Jennifer, a mom of two, was standing at the kitchen counter, slicing an apple for her son, Michael, when she heard a horrendous banging noise coming from the other side of the room. 

She immediately turned around to see her son smashing the door of the refrigerator with a baseball bat.

“Stop! Stop!” she screamed as she wrestled the bat away from her child and subdued him on the kitchen floor. 

Michael was 4 years old — and angry because his mother was about to serve him an apple instead of the banana he wanted.

Most parents experience frustration from time to time when it comes to managing their child’s behavior, but fewer know the heartache of dealing with this type of extreme outburst. 

For many parents, the first response may be to lash out at the child, raise one’s voice and deliver swift punishment. 

This may stop the immediate behavior. However, it probably won’t address any of the underlying issues that may have caused the behavior in the first place. 

Extreme behavior can be a sign that the child has a mental health need.

When it comes to understanding challenging behavior in young children, we can’t assume that what a child does and why a child does it are always related. 

The incident in Jennifer’s kitchen wasn’t Michael’s first outburst. He was constantly battling with his older brother — arguments that often escalated into punching, kicking and biting. 

Michael had been asked to leave several pre-schools, and Jennifer had a hard time keeping babysitters.

She’d never experienced anything like this with her first child.

If you end up in a similar situation, know there’s a lot you can do. One place to start is to think differently about behavior. Here are four important things to consider:

Behavior has meaning.

Before the incident in the kitchen, Michael had asked for a banana. He was told there were no bananas, but he could have an apple instead.

Michael was obviously unhappy about this, but his reaction was likely fueled by not understanding why he couldn’t have what he wanted.

Jennifer perhaps could’ve tried calmly reasoning with Michael a little more prior to the outburst, perhaps offering to take him to the store later in the week so that he could choose what type of fruit to buy.

Behavior is an attempt to communicate.

At age 4, children can often use words to have their needs met, but Michael had always struggled with language. He would sometimes become upset when he couldn’t find the right words and would have a tantrum. 

His behavior was his way of trying to get his needs met. 

To help Michael, Jennifer could try communicating with him in other ways, such as using pictures of common items he often wants.

Relationships are key.

When trust is established between a parent and his or her child, children feel safer and more able to let a parent take over, even in difficult situations, making it easier for parents to manage certain behaviors.  

Jennifer tried to not overreact to her son’s behaviors and had learned how to comfort Michael — and respond in positive ways — but she sometimes became exhausted and emotionally drained.

Don’t be afraid to ask for support!

Challenging behavior can be a sign that a child needs help. 

And because parents know their children best, they’re in the best position to notice areas of concern. 

Jennifer suspected there might be something more to Michael’s behavior, which was so radically different from that of her other child. 

Parents often feel anxious when they don’t know how to help their children with challenging behaviors. And sometimes they’re reluctant to seek professional help as a result.

But Jennifer, feeling unsure if something else was wrong, made an appointment with her pediatrician. 

A screening revealed that Michael was exhibiting symptoms similar to Attention Deficit Disorder. 

Knowing that Michael’s behavior may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition, Jennifer now is learning how to support him and help him manage his behaviors.

© Disney. Reprinted with permission from Disney Online. All Rights Reserved. This article originally appeared on and was published in partnership with The PACER Center, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities that helps families with children with disabilities and also runs the National Bullying Prevention Center. Learn more at Send your behavior-related questions to — and we’ll do our best to get them answered.