- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

An Atlanta pediatrician sent me an article from the February issue of Pediatric News, describing research recently conducted concerning tantrums in children ages 3 through 6. Intrigued, I spent some 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 may be indicative of fairly serious psychological disturbances, including depression and behavior disorders. Nearly half of the kids were so judged, in fact.

What exactly does that mean? Does it mean they have something wrong with them, a neurological abnormality of which their tantrums are symptoms? That conclusion would follow from what’s known as the disease model of mental illness, a model that is used these days to justify the increasingly common practice of giving preschool children psychotropic drugs.

Another point of view is that tantrums beyond the third birthday say more about the parents than the child. In that regard, from all that I gather reading historical writings on children and talking with parents who did most of their child rearing before the psychological parenting revolution of the late 1960s/early 1970s, tantrums beyond the third birthday were a rarity two generations and more ago.

I attended a child development conference in the late 1970s at which the keynoter, child psychologist Burton White (“The First Three Years of Life”), said tantrums beyond the second birthday should not be tolerated. Mr. White didn’t define the exact nature of said intolerance, perhaps because he felt parents had enough common sense to figure such things out on their own. Common sense has since drowned in a tsunami of psychobabble. 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 stopped listening to their elders and began taking their marching orders from professional experts (like me!). Up until then, children generally were cherished, but the center of the American family was occupied by adults. Today, children generally are worshipped by parents who face the center rather than occupy it. Kings, queens, demigods and dictators have always been given to tantrums. Today, the emperor/empress wears pull-ups.

Needless to say, the longer tantrums are allowed, the more habit and the worse they will become. Equally needless to say, children who throw tantrums regularly are not happy campers. This is indeed a mental health issue, but there is no compelling evidence to date that bad brains are the problem.

Intolerance does not require great drama. In fact, it is best conveyed calmly, with little fanfare. Intolerance begins with never, under any circumstances, giving in to a tantrum, even if one realizes the precipitating decision was a bit hasty. “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 generally 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. In any case, a sturdy gate may be necessary to persuade the child of the need to stay put. Obviously, sturdy gates will not contain most 5-year-olds, which is why tantrums should not be tolerated beyond the third birthday.

— Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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