When to Worry About Kids’ Temper Tantrums

New research helps distinguish between typical misbehavior and early signs of mental health problems.

Most young children lose their temper sometimes, but daily tantrums or tantrums with severe behaviors are unusual and could signal a larger problem, according to a National Institute of Mental Health-funded study published August 29 in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center and Northwestern University have designed a new tool to help parents, pediatricians and others who work with young children to distinguish “normal” misbehaviors of early childhood from clinically worrisome problems.

The Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB) is an easy-to-administer questionnaire that assesses the frequency, quality, and severity of behaviors related to temper tantrums and the extent of a child’s anger management skills over the past month.

Developmental psychologist Margaret Briggs-Gowan of the UConn Health Center and Lauren Wakschlag of Northwestern University and their colleagues conducted a study involving parents of almost 1,500 preschoolers, ages 3 to 5 years. They examined temper loss among the preschoolers as a spectrum of behaviors ranging from mild or normal to “problem indicators” that may be signs of a greater, underlying mental health issue.

Results of the Study

The researchers found that more than 80 percent of preschoolers had one or more tantrums in the past month. However, a key finding showed that less than 10 percent had tantrums every day. That finding is similar for girls and boys, poor and non-poor children and Hispanic, white and African-American children. Also, normal temper loss behaviors showed similar patterns and could be reliably distinguished from problem indicators.

The researchers say their goal was to provide a standard method that would take the guesswork out of when to worry about young children’s behavior and to provide a more developmentally sensitive way of characterizing the emergence of mental health problems.

Their findings provide early evidence that studying behaviors as a dimensional continuum may provide new insights into how mental disorders develop and better target early diagnosis, prevention and treatment.

View the entire journal article >

Follow the UConn Health Center on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.