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Should I Worry About My Child's Tantrums?

Toddlers’ tantrums are exhausting for parents. Unsure of whether to ignore a tantrum, when to calm a child, and dealing with judgemental stares from onlookers, parents with tantrum-prone toddlers often despair at the challenges they face. It's normal for young children to get very upset when they are frustrated, angry and disappointed and it is also very difficult for toddlers to calm down once they get very worked up. You can read some tips for reducing toddler tantrums here in an article and on video.

Research to Develop a Tantrum Assessment Tool

Northwestern University’s School of Medicine is developing a new assessment tool for paediatricians and parents called the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB). The MAP-DB is intended to help parents find out if their child’s tantrums could be a sign of other psychological or developmental problems.

During the study used to develop the MAP-DB the researchers found that only 8.6 % of pre-schoolers have daily tantrums and 83.7% have tantrums occasionally. The aims of the research were to:

  • Look at the frequency of tantrums or 'temper loss'  in pre-schoolers and examine differences based on age, gender, ethnicity and poverty
  • Create a model of temper-loss using a scale from normal misbehaviour to atypical or unusual behaviour, and
  • Examine the link between severity of a tantrum and other emotional or behavioural problems.

Using a sample of over 1500 parents and children aged between 3 and 5, the researchers analysed answers from parents about temper loss, aggression, anxiety, depression and impulsivity. And the results showed significant associations between a child’s tantrum-severity and other clinical and behavioural problems.

Work continues on the MAP-DB using another sample of 2200 children - the aim is to have a tool that can be provided to professionals for use with client families. The first study used parent-reports to gather data about tantrums in children. Northwestern University researchers are now expanding their study to include reports of child behaviour from teachers, and using other assessment (neuro-cognitive) measures. The ultimate goal is to be able to make the MAP-DB available in a computerised form so that parents can fill it out at their paediatrician’s office.

Should Parents be Worried if their Children’s Tantrums are Intense and Frequent?

Dr Lauren Wakschlag from Northwestern University’s Medical and Social Sciences Department explains that tantrums are normal but there are a small number of “atypical” tantrum patterns that might indicate a child needs more than just parenting. Typical tantrums might occur at times of the day when children are more prone to frustration, for example, when they are tired, at mealtimes or being asked to go to bed.  An “atypical tantrum” could happen ‘out of the blue’, be so intense for children that they get completely exhausted, might last longer than 5 minutes, might include very aggressive behaviour or might occur with non-parental adults.

Dr Wakschlag hopes that the MAP-DB will be more helpful than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which refers to a symptom of behaviour problems in children as “often loses temper” and does not refer to context. “Since most preschool children tantrum, these vague criteria make it exceptionally difficult for providers to determine when behaviour is of clinical significance in early childhood,” says Dr Wakschlag and as a result “There’s been a real danger of preschool children with normal misbehaviour being mislabelled and over-treated with medication.”

If your child is having daily tantrums and they occur with no real provocation or reason,  this could indicate that your child needs professional help. However, understanding more about when to intervene if your child is starting to get upset, how to intervene and what to say, can also help to reduce your child’s tantrums. Tuning Into Kids, designed by Dr Sophie Havighurst and Anne Harley at Mindful, University of Melbourne, is a research-based program designed to teach parents about emotion-coaching children and communicating in a way that is likely to reduce behaviour problems, including tantrums. Links to articles and other information about tantrums are provided below.

As a general guide, if your child’s tantrums are intense, frequent, mostly unprovoked and he or she is extremely aggressive, it is always a good idea to talk to your family doctor about referral to a professional for guidance.