Do All Kids Act Like That?

Temper tantrums among kids now ranked along a continuum to identify future problems

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Your toddler refuses to move. Every shopper can hear his screams, and your face burns as you struggle to pull him outside away from judgmental eyes. Is this really normal?

A group of researchers want to help you find out.

They have developed a questionnaire to help parents figure out if a child's temper tantrums are typical, or if they're raising red flags.

"Ask your pediatrician for help."

The questionnaire was developed through a study led by Lauren Wakschlag, PhD, a professor in the Department of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Wakschlag and colleagues developed a questionnaire to assess 1,490 preschoolers, aged 3 to 5. Parents of the children answered questions about their children's behavior, including how frequently the kids had temper tantrums, how bad they were and what they involved.

The results revealed that 83.7 percent of the kids had tantrums sometimes. Only 8.6 percent had daily tantrums, regardless of the child's gender, socioeconomic level or race/ethnicity.

The survey also asked about the children's anger management skills. The researchers then ranked the responses along a continuum from "typical" to "atypical."

This continuum can now be used to help parents and health professionals find where a child is along the range of "normal" so it's easier to tell when they move toward the middle or out of the middle toward the atypical range.

A child who remains closer to the atypical range may be at risk for future mental health problems.

An example of a typical tantrum would be one that has an identifiable cause, such as being overly tired, being hungry or becoming frustrated at getting dressed.

Atypical tantrums occur without warning and become so extraordinary that it exhausts the child.

Most children experience occasional atypical tantrums at some time or another, but they should not be happening regularly. That is a sign of possible future behavioral issues.

"We have defined the small facets of temper tantrums as they are expressed in early childhood. This is key to our ability to tell the difference between a typical temper tantrum and one that is problematic," Dr. Wakschlag said.

She said she hopes this new tool will prevent parents and care providers from over-reacting or under-reacting to a child's behavior.

"There's been a real danger of preschool children with normal misbehavior being mislabeled and over-treated with medication," Dr. Wakschlag said. "On the other hand, pediatricians may miss behaviors that are concerning. This is why it's so crucial to have tools that precisely identify when worry is warranted in this age group."

Since the research found that fewer than 10 percent of preschool children have a daily tantrums, all-out scream feasts may not be as common as people think.

This makes it even more important for parents to be able to tell the difference between a child who has normal tantrums and one who has excessive ones outside the norm.

"It gives a measurable indicator to tell us when tantrums are frequent enough that a child may be struggling," said Dr. Wakschlag. "Perhaps for the first time, we have a tangible way to help parents, doctors and teachers know when the frequency and type of tantrums may be an indication of a deeper problem."

Dr. Wakschlag and colleagues are continuing to study possible links between patterns of misbehavior in preschool children and future mental health problems.

The study was published August 29 in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Walden & Jean Young Shaw Foundation.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 29, 2012
Last Updated:
September 1, 2012