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Outbursts, Irritability & Emotional Dysregulation Resource Center

Last updated October 2021

About

Many children lose their temper or become frustrated and upset. Learning how to regulate emotions is a normal part of growing up. Some children and adolescents' outbursts that are impairing and extreme. Their outbursts may include verbal symptoms (such as yelling or uncontrolled crying) and behavioral symptoms (such as harm to others, oneself or to property). They are out of proportion compared to what other children or teens their age experience and are more extreme than what would be expected from the situation.  

Impairing emotional outbursts are not a psychiatric diagnosis, but they often are a sign that a child is having an emotional or behavioral problem that needs a mental health assessment.  Psychiatric diagnoses that are associated with impairing emotional outbursts include anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, autism spectrum disorders, mood disorders (disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, bipolar disorder, depression) post-traumatic stress disorder and others.

There are treatments that can help. The first step is a comprehensive assessment, followed by treatment for the underlying disorder.  Both behavioral treatments and medication treatments can help.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are emotional outbursts?

All children may have emotional outbursts at one time or another when they are unable to manage their frustration. Typically, such outbursts would become less frequent and intense as a young person matures. However, emotional outbursts can become problematic when they increase in frequency or intensity beyond what might be expected for a child or adolescent. A more severe outburst might involve yelling, cursing, breaking items, or even threatened or real violence towards themselves or another person. 

What does dysregulated mood mean?

Dysregulated mood refers to a pattern of behavior in a child or adolescent who is often irritable and angry and who has frequent intense temper tantrums and outbursts. These behaviors occur several times a week or more and can be interspaced with times when then child is otherwise in a good mood. These dramatic and extreme changes in mood often lead to problems at home with parents and siblings and also at school with teachers and classmates.         

What causes emotional outbursts or dysregulated moods?

Emotional outbursts and dysregulated moods can have many different causes depending on the individual. They might occur in children who have difficulties communicating or when a child is depressed. Children with learning or developmental problems can also have difficulty regulating their emotions. Because there can be many different causes it is important that a child or adolescent receive a thorough evaluation by a pediatrician, child & adolescent psychiatrist, or other qualified child mental health professional. 

Are there treatments for emotional outbursts or dysregulated moods?

The short answer is “Yes.” However, because there can be many different causes it is important to first be sure that you and your doctor understand what the underlying problems might be. Interventions are then targeted at the underlying problems and adjusted to fit an individual child’s unique strengths and vulnerabilities.


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