Outbursts by children when frustrated or when asked to “do something they don’t want to do” are among the most common behavioral complaints voiced by parents. But behavioral outbursts, beyond the typical tantrums of children up to age 4 years, can be signs of very severe mental health disorders and are the most common reason for psychiatric admission (50%-60%).

While behavioral dysregulation is undeniably a huge problem for families, there has been an unreasonable 40-fold rise in diagnosis of bipolar disorder from 1994 to 2003, and 48% were prescribed atypical neuroleptics – medications with serious side effects. In response to this overdiagnosis as bipolar disorder, in 2013 the DSM-5 created a new diagnosis called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) to differentiate children who experience explosive outbursts who have a different outcome. This new classification includes children aged 6-12 years with persistent irritability most of the time, nearly every day, lasting at least 12 months and starting before age 10 years. DMDD diagnosis is not used after age 18 years.

To be diagnosed, the child has to have frequent, severe temper outbursts “grossly out of proportion” to the situation, averaging at least three times per week. The outbursts can be verbal or physical aggression to people, things, or themselves. While tantrums can be severe in children with delayed development, for the DMDD diagnosis these behaviors must be inconsistent with developmental level and must occur in at least two settings, and in one setting it must be severe. While outbursts are common, only half of children in one study of severe tantrum behavior in 5- to 9-year-olds also had the required persistent irritability.

If this does sound a lot like bipolar disorder so far, you are right. So what is different? DMDD has a prevalence of 2%-5% and occurs mostly in boys, whereas bipolar disorder affects boys and girls equally and affects less than 1% prior to adolescence.

The key features distinguishing DMDD from bipolar disorder are lack of an episodic nature to the irritability and lack of mania. Irritability in DMDD has to be persistently present with breaks of no more than 3 consecutive months in the defining 12-month period. There also cannot be any more than 1 day of the elevated mood features of mania or hypomania. Identifying mania is the hardest part, even in diagnosing adult bipolar, where it occurs only 1% of the year, much less in children who are generally lively! Hypomania, while less intense than mania, is when the person is energetic, talkative, and confident to an extreme extent, often with a flight of creative ideas. Excitement over birthdays or Christmas specifically does not count! So getting this history has to be done carefully, generally by a mental health professional, to make the distinction.

Interestingly, DMDD is not diagnosed when outbursts and irritability are better explained by autism spectrum disorder, separation anxiety disorder, or PTSD. To me, these exclusions point out the importance of sorting out the “set conditions” for all problematic behaviors, not always an easy task. Symptoms of autism in high functioning individuals can be quite subtle. Was the upset from change in a rigid routine known only to the child? Were sensory stimuli such as loud noises intolerable to this child? Was a nonverbal signal of a peer mistaken as a threat? While violent outbursts precipitated by these factors would still be considered “grossly out of proportion to the situation” for a typical child, they are not uncommon in atypical children. Similarly, children with separation anxiety disorder experience a high level of threat from even thinking about being apart from their caregivers, setting them up for alarm by situations other children would not find difficult.

The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes the need to assess all children for a history of psychological trauma. Traumas are quite common, and their sequelae affect many aspects of the child’s life; in the case of outbursts, it is emotional resilience that is impaired. As for all DSM-5 diagnoses, DMDD is not diagnosed when the irritability is due to physiological effects of a substance (e.g. steroids) or another medical or neurological disorder. Children with chronic pain conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or sickle cell usually cope remarkably well, but when they don’t, their irritability should not be considered a mental health disorder. More commonly, sleep debt can produce chronic irritability and always should be assessed.

When coaching families about outbursts, I work to help them recognize that the child is not just angry, but very distressed. While “typical” tantrums last 1-5 minutes and show a rise then decline in intensity of the anger and distress, anger outbursts are longer and have an initial short and rapid burst of anger that then declines over the duration of the outburst, and with a steady but lower level of distress throughout.

The option to hug and verbally console the child’s distress is sometimes effective and does not reinforce the behavior unless the parent also yields to demands. But once outbursts begin, I liken them to a bomb going off – there is no intervention possible then. Instead, the task of the family, and over time that of the child, is to recognize and better manage the triggers.

Dr. Ross Greene, in his book, “ The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children ,” asserts that the child’s anger and distress can be interpreted as frustration from a gap in skills. This has treatment implications for identifying, educating about, and ameliorating the child’s weaknesses (deficits in understanding, communication, emotion regulation, flexibility or performance; or excess jealousy or hypersensitivity), and coaching parents to recognize, acknowledge, and avoid stressing these areas, if possible. I coach families to give points to the child for progressive little steps toward being able to recognize, verbalize, and inhibit outbursts with a reward system for the points. This helps put the parents and child “on the same team” in working on improving these skills.

Research on children with DMDD indicates that they show less positive affect when winning a “fixed” video game and are less able to suppress negative affect when losing. (Don’t forget to examine the role of real video games as precipitants of tantrums and contingently remove them!) Threshold for upset is lower and the degree of the upsets less well handled by children with DMDD.

In another study, when presented with a series of ambiguous facial expressions, children with DMDD were more likely to see anger in the faces than were controls. One hopeful result was that they could be taught to shift their perceptions significantly away from seeing anger, also reducing irritability and resulting in functional MRI changes. Such hostile bias attribution (tending to see threat) is well known to predispose to aggression. Cognitive behavioral therapy, the most effective counseling intervention, similarly teaches children to rethink their own negative thoughts before acting.

If irritability and rages were not enough, most children with DMDD have other psychiatric disorders; 39% having two, and 51% three or more ( J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2013 Nov;23[9]:588-96 ). If not for the DMDD diagnosis, 82% would meet criteria for oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). The other common comorbidities are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (74.5%), anxiety disorders (49.0%), and depression that is not major depressive disorder (MDD)(33.3%). When MDD is present, that diagnosis takes precedence. One cannot diagnose ODD, intermittent explosive disorder, or bipolar disorder along with DMDD, conditions from which it is intended to differentiate. Each of these comorbid disorders can be difficult to manage alone much less in combination, making DMDD a disorder deserving diagnosis and treatment by a mental health professional.

One of the main reasons DMDD was created is that children with these features go on to depressive or anxiety disorder in adolescence, not bipolar disorder.

While there is no treatment specific to DMDD, the depression component and prognosis suggest use of SSRIs, in addition to psychosocial therapies, and stimulants for the comorbid ADHD. Unfortunately, these two classes of medication are relatively contraindicated in bipolar disorder because they can lead to treatment-induced episodic mania (TEM). TEM occurs twice as often with antidepressants compared with stimulants (44% vs. 18%) in children with bipolar disorder ( J Affect Disord. 2004 Oct 1;82[1]:149-58 ). Getting the diagnosis correct is, therefore, of great importance when medication is considered.

Approaches such as behavior modification, family therapy, and inpatient treatment can be effective for chronic irritability and aggression. Stimulant treatment of comorbid ADHD can decrease aggression and irritability. Alpha agonists such as guanfacine or clonidine also can help. In cases of partial improvement, adding either risperidone or divalproex may further decrease aggression in ADHD. In refractory aggression, risperidone has the best evidence. The Affective Reactivity Index or Outburst Monitoring Scale can be helpful in assessing severity and monitoring outcomes.

While a prognosis for depression rather than bipolar disorder sounds like a plus, in a longitudinal study, adults who had DMDD as children had worse outcomes, including being more likely to have adverse health outcomes (smoking, sexually transmitted infection), police contact, and low educational attainment, and being more likely to live in poverty, compared with controls who had other psychiatric disorders. While DMDD is a new and different diagnosis, it is similar to bipolar in having a potential course of life disruption, dangerous behaviors, suicide risk, and hospitalization.

Dr. Howard is assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to Frontline. E-mail her at pdnews@frontlinemedcom.com.