Q: 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 jump 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?
A: The diagnosis of bipolar disorder in childhood or early-onset bipolar disorder is not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, though it was popularized in “The Bipolar Child," co-authored by psychiatrist Demitri Papolos and writer Janice Papolos.
As pediatrician Bose Ravenel and I explained in “The Diseasing of America’s Children,” the diagnostic criteria proposed by the Papoloses also describe fairly typical toddler behaviors. Those behaviors, even when they cluster, are not in and of themselves anything to be concerned about in a child age the same age as your son. That is especially the case when only one behavior attributable to a particular disorder is present and occurs infrequently.
Given that you describe your son as generally sweet, loving, and well-behaved, I would chalk his occasional tantrums up to toddlerhood. They occur not because he’s possessed (Disclaimer: I am not an 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 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. Do not lock a child this age behind a closed door, but instead cut the bedroom door in half, and re-install it as a Dutch door, with the locks turned outward to prevent escapes. Drag him kicking and screaming if you must. Then walk away, allowing the hurricane to run its course. If my experience serves me well, your son’s cure will take four to eight weeks.