Childhood Tantrums: A Predictor of Later Mental Health Problems

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Do childhood tantrums predict mental health problems later in life? Andrew Belden, M.D., a post-doctoral fellow of psychiatry at Washington University, School of Medicine has outlined five out-of-the-ordinary types of temper tantrums which may indicate a high risk for depression or other disruptive behavior problems. Dr. Belden's study involved 297 pre-schoolers who were screened by DSM IV standards as either: healthy; depressed; disruptive or depressed and disruptive. The study then examined the frequency of tantrums, the intensity and where the tantrums occurred. Children who consistently hit a parent or caregiver during tantrums and were unable to calm themselves down were found to be at a greater risk for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome. Children at a high risk for disruptive disorders which involve hostile behavior towards authority figures, aggression and violence were likely to experience tantrums at least five times a day on multiple days in school or at home than children who were categorized as developing normally. Tantrums which lasted more than 25 minutes were considered another measure of risk. Also, children who hit himself or herself during a tantrum had a definitive link to depression.

Ross Greene, M.D. of Harvard Medical School and the author of The Explosive Child, looks toward defining the anatomy of temper tantrums as key to understanding a child and their future risk. Dr. Greene focuses on using the tantrum to determine what skills the child is lacking and helping them build a repertoire of social and coping skills. Dr. Greene advocates for using a negotiation with the explosive child rather than to have the parent impose their will. Preparing children for disruptions to favored routines and changes is a better method than crisis response according to Dr. Greene. Spanking may, in fact, accelerate or prolong a tantrum and is not regarded a good response.

Dr. Belden offers parents an understanding that 30-40% of healthy children will exhibit violence towards a parent or caregiver on occasion and that does not mean that the child is headed towards a mental health problem. Tantrums are part of the learning process for children to learn to express and manage anger and practice coping skills. All things, which if learned in childhood, can serve us throughout our lives.

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