Temper tantrums in young children can be an early signal of mental health problems, but how does a parent or pediatrician know when disruptive behavior is typical or a sign of a serious problem?
New Northwestern Medicine research will give parents and professionals a new tool to know when to worry about young children’s misbehavior. Researchers have developed an easy-to-administer questionnaire specifically designed to distinguish the typical misbehavior of early childhood from more concerning misbehavior.
This will enable early identification and treatment of emerging mental health problems, key to preventing young children struggling with their behavior from spiraling downward into chronic mental health problems. The new tool also will prevent rampant mislabeling and overtreatment of typical misbehavior.
In a surprising key finding, the study also debunks the common belief temper tantrums are rampant among young children. Although temper tantrums among preschoolers are common, they are not particularly frequent, the research shows. Less than 10 percent of young children have a daily tantrum. That pattern is similar for girls and boys, poor and non-poor children and Hispanic, white and African-American children.
“That’s an ‘aha!’ moment, “said Lauren Wakschlag, professor and vice chair in the department of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of a paper, published August 29 in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. “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.”
Until recently, the only diagnostic tools available for preschool behavior problems were those geared to older children and teens with more severe, aggressive behavior. More recently, there has been emphasis on measures developed specifically for preschool children.
For the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers developed the new questionnaire, the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB), to ask parents of almost 1,500 diverse preschoolers, age three to five, to answer questions about their child’s behavior. The questionnaire asked about the frequency, quality and severity of many temper tantrum behaviors and anger management skills over the past month.
The results allowed researchers to rate children along a continuum of behavior from typical to atypical, rather than focusing only on extreme behavior. Having a continuum will allow mental health professionals to intervene before there is a serious problem or watch and wait if a child is in the middle range. Early childhood is a critical period to identify a problem, because once negative problems become entrenched, they are harder to treat.
This continuum also provides a barometer for determining when a child is improving on his/her own or through treatment.
Source: Northwestern University, USA