What every parent should know about temper tantrums

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If you have a preschooler, a temper tantrum has probably reared its ugly head at home or (gasp) at someone else’s house or out in public. Although these bouts of acting out are considered normal behavior, sometimes they could indicate a more serious problem like a learning disability, developmental disorder or mental health problem.

Here, read on for expert advice on when you should be concerned.

They’re common but infrequent.

Temper tantrums are very common for the 2 to 4 year old set, although they can show up earlier or not at all. Although it seems like an eternity, most tantrums last no more than two or three minutes at a stretch.

And normal tantrums happen less often than you might think. In fact, less than 10 percent of children have a tantrum every day, according to a recent Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

There’s usually a reason.

Temper tantrums that have a specific trigger are considered normal, according to Diane Lang, a psychotherapist, author and positive living expert. Your tot might be frustrated because he can’t reach a toy or tie his shoe, upset because he’s tired, hungry or missed a nap. Tantrums can also happen during times of transition like meal time, bed time or nap time.

It could be something more serious.  

If your child whines, cries, screams, kicks, lies on the floor or holds his breath, it’s usually not a cause for concern. Yet if his tantrums last longer than five minutes, happen for no apparent reason and occur more than two or three times a week,  become so intense that he tries to hurt himself or someone else, it’s best to speak with your pediatrician.

“That’s when we start worrying because that’s not the norm,” Lang said. These types of tantrums could indicate that your child has a learning problem or disability, mental health problem, or developmental disorder like ADD, ADHD or autism.

Getting help will be easier.

Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have come up with a new tool, the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB), a questionnaire that will help parents and doctors identify and treat a the behavioral problem early on, so it doesn’t escalate into a larger concern later.

“Because tantrums are so common in young children, we have really needed to have ways that a pediatrician, teacher or parent could say this is what needs further evaluation versus this is what I should expect from my child at this age," according to Lauren Wakschlag, professor and vice chair in the department of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the recent study.

After the findings of this study are replicated in a second sample of children, researchers will work towards making the questionnaire available.