Some temper tantrum styles may be associated with clinical problems in preschool children

December 19, 2007

Cincinnati, December 21, 2007 - Temper tantrums are common among preschool children 3 to 6 years of age. Although these tantrums can range in duration and intensity, many parents often worry whether tantrums are also symptoms of more serious problems. A study published in the January issue of The Journal of Pediatrics suggests that certain types of tantrums may indicate serious emotional or behavioral disorders.

Dr. Andy Belden and colleagues from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis identified and characterized tantrum behaviors by studying 279 parent-child pairs. The researchers compared the tantrums of children previously diagnosed with depression and/or disruptive disorders, such as ADHD, with those of healthy children. They found that healthy children were less aggressive and, generally, had shorter tantrums.

The authors categorized the high-risk children according to five "tantrum styles:" 1) self-injurious behavior; 2) consistent violent aggression towards others or objects; 3) the inability to calm themselves without assistance; 4) tantrums lasting for more than 25 minutes; 5) an average of 5 tantrums a day, or 10-20 tantrums in a month. The first tantrum style was found most often in children with depression, and should be considered very serious. The other four may be indicators of emotional or behavioral problems.

The authors note that tantrums are commonly caused by hunger, fatigue, or illness, and are often considered normal among preschool children. However, Dr. Belden suggests that "preschoolers who consistently exhibit the behaviors outlined may be in need of a referral to a mental health professional for further evaluation." This research may serve as a guideline for parents and caregivers to determine when assistance is needed for their child's tantrums.
The study is reported in "Temper Tantrums in Healthy Versus Depressed and Disruptive Preschoolers: Defining Tantrum Behaviors Associated with Clinical Problems" by Andy C. Belden, PhD, Nicole Renick Thompson, PhD, and Joan L. Luby, MD. The article appears in The Journal of Pediatrics, Volume 152, Number 1 (January 2008), published by Elsevier.

Elsevier Health Sciences

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