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When A Tantrum Is Not Just A Tantrum

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When is a child's tantrum normal developmental behavior for his age, and when is it a sign of a deeper underlying problem? 

This question was at the heart of a new study, which concluded that – even in young children – daily tantrums could suggest deeper problems.

As part of the study, conducted at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, researchers asked nearly 1,500 parents of children ages 3-5 about the frequency and severity of their children's tantrums.

The survey found that 84 percent of preschool kids had thrown a tantrum within the past month, but just 8.6 percent had daily tantrums. Some 8.3 percent of the kids threw a sudden tantrum at least once a week.

But one relatively uncommon form of behavior – and potential warning sign – was frequently having tantrums out of the blue, as opposed to when the child was frustrated or angry. Also uncommon: tantrums that include aggressive or violent behavior, or tantrums that last a long time or were hard for the child to recover from. 

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About 14 percent of children had tantrums that lasted longer than five minutes at least once a week.

Lauren Wakschlag, vice chair of the medical school's department of medical social sciences, 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. 

She also stressed that it is important for physicians to properly tell the difference between normal and problematic patterns of behavior.

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

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