Temper tantrums can be a normal and common part of early childhood, but sometimes they are a sign of a problem that needs to be addressed.
Parents often ask me whether their child’s tantrums are beyond what is normal. When is a red-faced preschooler screaming and flailing about normal; when is the tantrum a cause for concern? What’s too often? What’s too long? What’s too extreme?
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine analyzed the tantrums of 279 children from 3 to 6 years old. Their results were published in the January 2008 Journal of Pediatrics.
They divided tantrum behaviors into aggressive-destructive (kicking others, hitting others, throwing objects, breaking objects), self-injurious (hitting self, head-banging, holding breath, biting self), non-destructive aggression (non-directed kicking, stamping feet, hitting wall), and oral aggression (biting others, spitting on others).
The authors suggest that parents need not worry about isolated or occasional extreme tantrums, especially if the child is hungry, overtired, or ill. Instead, they should pay attention to tantrum styles, the overall pattern of tantrums.
They identified 5 high-risk tantrum styles and suggest that kids over age 3 with any of these deserve further evaluation by a mental health specialist.
The results of the study are preliminary, and by no means proven, but at least give parents and pediatricians a place to start.
If a child shows aggression toward a caregiver or tries to destroy toys or other objects during most tantrums, the child may have ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, or another disruptive disorder. Specifically, if more than half of a series of 10 or 20 tantrums includes aggression to caregivers and/or objects, consider an evaluation. Depressed children may also have a pattern of aggression.
By the time a child reaches age 3, a pattern of trying to hurt oneself during a tantrum may be a sign of major depression and should always be evaluated. At this age tantrums that include behaviors such as scratching oneself till the skin bleeds, head-banging, or biting oneself are red flags no matter how long the episodes last or how often they occur. In this study, they were almost always associated with a psychiatric diagnosis.
Tantrums at home are more common than in daycare or school. Having 10 separate tantrums on a single day at home may just be a bad day, but if it happens more than once in a 30 day period, there is a greater risk of a clinical problem. The same goes for more than 5 separate tantrums a day on multiple days at school.
In this study, when tantrums occurred at school, or outside of home or school, more than 5 times a day on multiple days, there was a higher risk of ADHD and other disruptive disorders.
A normal tantrum in this study averaged about 11 minutes (though I’m sure it seemed a lot longer to parents!). When a child’s typical tantrums last more than 25 minutes each, on average, further evaluation is wise.
Kids who usually require extra help from a caregiver to recover were at higher risk for ADHD, no matter how frequent the tantrums were or how long they lasted. Speaking calmly to your child in the midst of a tantrum, or acting reassuringly, is normal. But if you find you can’t stop a tantrum without giving in or offering a bribe, pay attention. By age 3, kids should be learning how to calm themselves.
It’s normal for healthy preschool kids to have extreme temper tantrums sometimes, and to lash out at people or things on occasion. Starting to pay attention to tantrum styles rather than individual outbreaks may help sort out what’s healthy and what’s not, and how to respond.
Beldon, AC, Thomson NR, Luby JL. Temper tantrums in health versus depressed and disruptive preschoolers: defining tantrum behaviors associated with clinical problems. Journal of Pediatrics. 10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.06.030. January 2008.