WEDNESDAY, Aug. 29, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Less than 10 percent of preschoolers have daily temper tantrums and most of these tantrums are linked to real, momentary frustrations the toddler experiences, new research finds.
"It's very uncommon for children to tantrum daily," said Lauren Wakschlag, lead author of the study, published in the Aug. 29 online edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Knowing what is normal and abnormal for young children should go a long way towards more accurately identifying which children need professional help and which children are simply "acting their age," added Wakschlag, who is vice chair of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Although there is increasing evidence that mental health problems are identifiable and emerge in early childhood, the criteria used to identify clinical problems have only been developed for adults or older children.
The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, is a step towards quantifying what is normal and what is abnormal at the preschool level.
The researchers asked the parents of about 1,500 preschoolers aged 3 to 5 years a total of five questions about their child's behavior over the previous month.
According to the parents' reports, most of the preschoolers surveyed (83.7 percent) had tantrums from time to time, but only 8.6 percent had daily outbursts.
Most tantrums were temporary and arose predictably from being tired or frustrated. Less common and more concerning were tantrums that materialized "out of the blue," lasted for more than five minutes, occurred with nonparental adults or involved aggressive behavior.
Commenting on the study, Rahil Briggs, a child psychologist with Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, said that "there are certain behaviors that are more severe and are qualitatively more concerning, like aggression."
In general, professionals and parents have to take into account frequency, quality and duration when assessing tantrums, Briggs added.
A 2-year-old who pouts for two minutes a day is less concerning than a kid who tantrums once a week, damages the entire house and beats up his little sister, she said.
The study is limited by the fact that it relies only on parents' reporting of their child's behavior. The authors are just now starting to link this information with established mental health conditions.
And the parents were only quizzed about behavior seen during the past month.
"We still need to know how long this has been going on," Wakschlag said. "Sometimes a new sibling is born or there's some major disruption in the family, and we may see these behaviors increasing."
And, as always, any behavior needs to be understood in context, she added.
"Just because a young child has done one of these things a time or two doesn't mean there's cause for concern," Wakschlag said. "We're trying to give a science to when to worry."
The Nemours Foundation has more on temper tantrums.