An Atlanta pediatrician sent me an article from the February issue of Pediatric News describing research on tantrums in children ages 3-6. Intrigued, I spent time on the Internet reading other accounts of the study. I even left several messages for the primary author, but haven't heard back from him at this writing.
After studying 279 children, the researchers concluded that tantrums in preschool-age kids might indicate fairly serious psychological disturbances, including depression and behavior disorders. Nearly half of the kids were so judged, in fact. But what does that mean?
Does it mean they have a neurological abnormality of which the tantrums are symptoms?
One point of view is that tantrums beyond the third birthday say more about the parents than the child.
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I attended a child development conference in the late 1970s at which the keynoter, psychologist Burton White (“The First Three Years of Life”) said tantrums beyond the second birthday should not be tolerated. But it's no longer unusual for children as old as 6 to still be acting like little lunatics when they don't get their way – thus, the study.
The history of this phenomenon, as anecdotal as it is, strongly suggests that things began to go wrong when American parents began worshiping their children and placing them at the center of the family.
Kings, queens, demigods and dictators have always been given to tantrums. Today, the emperor/empress wears diapers.
Intolerance does not require great drama. “Ignore them” is fine advice, but does not take into account that tantrums have a tendency to follow parents from room to room, escalating in the process. For that reason, I advise assigning tantrums to a designated “tantrum place” – some relatively isolated area of the house where rages can be contained until they burn themselves out. Absent a more creative solution, the child's room will do.
A sturdy gate may be necessary to persuade the child of the need to stay put. Sturdy gates will not contain most 5-year-olds, which is why tantrums should not be tolerated beyond the third birthday.