Temper tantrums are a common occurrence during early childhood. But when are they abnormal — too physical, too loud, too frequent, or too inappropriate to the situation? When do tantrums suggest a deeper problem or a potential for future mental health issues? A group of researchers tackled this question recently by collecting behavioral information on almost 1500 preschoolers recruited from five pediatric clinics in the greater Chicago area.

Previous research has suggested that the frequency, duration, quality, context, and triggering events of tantrums can help distinguish between those that are “appropriate “and those that are not. So the researchers developed a questionnaire to help parents accurately describe their children’s challenging behaviors and how often they occurred. Each section of the questionnaire contained items that described normal misbehavior as well as items that suggested problems.

Temper tantrums are an early form of responding to anger, frustration and disappointment. While they are considered to be an inescapable fact of early childhood, not all temper tantrums are normal.

The questionnaire is called Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB), and focuses on the frequency, quality and severity of many tantrum behaviors and anger management skills.

The items on the MAP-DB pinpoint the qualities and circumstances of a tantrum, asking such things as whether a child:
  • Tends to keep on having a temper tantrum, even when you have tried to help him calm down;
  • Breaks or destroys things;
  • Hits, bites, or kicks during a tantrum;
  • Loses his or her temper with you or another parent, or other adults such as a teacher or babysitter of family member;
  • Loses his or her temper when frustrated angry, upset, tired, hungry or sick, or during daily routines;
  • Becomes frustrated easily;
  • Yells angrily at others;
  • Has a hot or explosive temper.

The frequency of behaviors was rated from “never” to “some days of the week” to “many times each day.”

The investigators used the questionnaire to document how often temper loss behaviors occur in preschoolers and to look for differences by age, gender, race/ethnicity ad poverty status.

The research revealed that nearly all preschoolers, 83.7%, have tantrums sometimes, but, perhaps surprisingly, daily tantrums are not typical behavior and were only seen in 8.6 % of the study population. This finding remained true for younger preschoolers, both girls and boys, and for children living with a variety of socioeconomic stressors.

The study also showed that the characteristics as well as the frequency of tantrums helped distinguish normal from problematic tantrums. Red flags for problematic temper loss may include daily tantrums, tantrums lasting more than five minutes, being aggressive during a tantrum, having a tantrum with non-parental adults and having a tantrum out of the blue.

The regulation of temper is a skill that is acquired as a child develops and manifests differently at different life stages. If a child fails to learn to manage temper in a socially acceptable manner, psychopathology may be present or maladaptive behavior may develop. Temper tantrums are an early form of responding to anger, frustration and disappointment. While they are considered to be an inescapable fact of early childhood, not all temper tantrums are normal.

This study and its questionnaire provide a useful tool for parents and clinicians to describe a child’s behavior in a way that will help reveal both normal and problematic patterns. Inquiring specifically about tantrum behaviors, circumstances, and frequency can inform intervention.

Perhaps most valuably, the researchers have provided a method of describing childhood behavior in a quantifiable way, so parents and clinicians can objectively assess children’s behavior patterns as well as monitor their response to interventions. The questionnaire is easy to administer and will help prevent both over-labeling of normal behaviors and under-diagnosis of problem temperaments. Early intervention can help prevent escalation of maladaptive behavior patterns and ease the burden on parents and teachers.

The study is published in September issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.