Childhood Tantrums Possibly Related To Early Mental Issues

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

Scientists from Northwestern University recently studied the differences between preschoolers´ typical misbehavior and beginning signs of mental health issues. Researchers believe that the findings could be helpful for parents and professionals to understand the misbehavior of young children.

In the project, researchers created a questionnaire that helped differentiate between misbehavior and more alarming misbehavior. The findings of the questionnaire, recently published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, will help researchers identify and treat developing mental health problems. It will also help prevent children from suffering from chronic health problems as well as limit the mislabeling and overtreatment of children´s misbehavior.

“That’s an ‘aha!’ moment,” explained lead author Lauren Wakschlag, professor and vice chair in the department of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a prepared statement. “It gives a measurable indicator to tell us when tantrums are frequent enough that a child may be struggling. 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.”

The study also found that, while tantrums are common among preschoolers, they do not happen as frequently as people think. According to the researchers, less than 10 percent of young children have a tantrum on a daily basis. This pattern can be found with girls and boys, poor and non-poor children, as well as children of African-American, Hispanic, and white background.

Previously, the diagnosis of preschool behavior problems was only found through diagnostic tools for older children and teens that had severe to aggressive behavior. Recently, there has been increased emphasis on measures designed for preschool children. Researchers for this particular study developed the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB), a new questionnaire that included questions on the frequency, quality, and severity of the temper tantrum behaviors and anger management skills.

The study included the responses of around 1,500 parents of preschoolers on their child´s behavior; the students were between the ages of three and five. In particular, the results from the responses allowed researchers to place students on a continuum of behavior from typical to atypical instead of target an extreme behavior. The researchers believe that a continuum will help mental health professionals to make interventions before serious problems develop; they see early childhood as an important period to determine any issues because serious problems can become more entrenched as children grow older. The continuum also allows mental health experts to understand whether a child is improving with the treatment.

“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,” continued Wakschlag in the statement.

With the study, the researchers were able to identify factors in typical and atypical tantrums. A typical tantrum happens when a child is frustrated or tired during daily routines like bedtime, meal time, or getting dressed. An atypical tantrum happens “out of the blue,” makes a child becomes exhausted, and is a sign of possible developing mental health problems.

The researchers stated that the criteria used in this study differentiates from commonly used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which doesn´t look at age-specific makers.

“The definition of ‘often’ may vary substantially for younger and older children and depend on family stress levels and other mitigating factors,” remarked Wakschlag in the statement. “Since most preschool children tantrum, this vague criteria makes it exceptionally difficult for providers to determine when behavior is of clinical significance in early childhood.”

With the barometer, the researchers analyzed how the tantrum patterns were related to a spectrum of mental health problems and issues associated with daily functions. The team is also working with Northwestern neuroscientist Joel Voss in integrating brain-imaging techniques in the project to understand connection between early problem behaviors and certain patterns of brain reactivity. In moving forward, the scientists also want to replicate the findings with a second sample and an expanded questionnaire.

“There’s been a real danger of preschool children with normal misbehavior being mislabeled and over-treated with medication,” noted Wakschlag in the statement. “On the other hand, pediatricians are hampered by the lack of standardized methods for determining when misbehavior reflects deeper problems and so 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.”

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