Normal Tot or Problem Child? Tantrum Frequency Holds Clues

toddler in crib having a temper tantrum
The terrible twos is all about temper tantrums, but some toddlers have more intense outbursts than others, and some don't grow out of them. Researchers say characteristics of these ear-splitting screams could indicate a predisposition to depression or other mental health issues. (Image credit: Oleg Kozlov | Shutterstock)

It's common for young children to have a temper tantrum from time to time, but daily tantrums are uncommon enough to be a possible sign of worrisome behavior problems, a new study finds.

Based on a survey of nearly 1,500 parents, the study found that 84 percent of preschool kids had thrown a tantrum within the past month, but just 8.6 percent had daily tantrums.

That finding indicates that, even in young children, daily tantrums are not typical and may suggest deeper problems, said study researcher Lauren Wakschlag of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The finding is part of larger research looking at what exactly distinguishes "normal" tantrums from problematic behaviors that may be early signs of mental health issues.

The researchers asked parents of children ages 3-5 about the frequency and severity of their children's tantrums.

One relatively uncommon behavior was frequently having tantrums out of the blue, as opposed to when the child was frustrated or angry, said Wakschlag,  who is vice chair of the department of medical social sciences at her school.  Some 8.3 percent of the kids threw a sudden tantrum at least once a week.

It was also uncommon for children to have tantrums that lasted a long time or were hard for the child to recover from, Wakschlag said. About 14 percent of children had tantrums that lasted longer than five minutes at least once a week.

Relatively few children displayed aggression, such as biting or kicking, during a tantrum, and only slightly more common was having a tantrum with an adult who was not their parent, according to the study. Parents reported that 8.2 percent of children had behaved aggressively weekly during a tantrum, and 10 percent threw a tantrum with another adult.

The researchers acknowledged that any of these uncommon behaviors may occur from time to time; it is only when they happen regularly that they might raise concern.

While the study identified which tantrum behaviors are atypical among young children, more research is needed to possibly link specific behaviors with mental health and social problems,Wakschlag said. She and colleagues are conducting this stage of the research now.

The researchers hope their research will reduce overtreatment of behavior that is actually typical for children, Wakschlag said.

For instance, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the bible of mental health disorders — a symptom of behavior problems is "often loses temper." With this definition, Wakschlag said, there may be confusion about how often is "often," particularly because the frequency of tantrums varies with the child's age.

“There's been a real danger of preschool children with normal misbehavior being mislabeled and over-treated with medication," Wakschlag said. "This is why it’s so crucial to have tools that precisely identify when worry is warranted in this age group."

The study appears today (Aug. 29) in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Pass it on: Daily tantrums are rare among young children, and may be an early indicator of a deeper problem.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner, orMyHealthNewsDaily @MyHealth_MHND. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.