Tantrums are inevitable. More a “milestone” than a worrisome sign, everyday tantrums help kids to negotiate and grapple with emotional and physical discomfort. They’re part of an essential, if unpleasant, phase of life that can’t be avoided. But severe, frequent tantrums can be a worrying sign of longer-term mental health issues. Being able to tell the difference between a kicking-screaming-crying ball toddler who is going through a phase and one that might need help has long puzzled researchers and parents alike. But a new study offers a way to sort between a loud, but normal tantrum and one that may be linked to longer-term mental issues.
There are basically two types of tantrums: Your more typical tantrums where the waterworks and wailing don’t last too long, and kids can often be soothed if you just stay calm, hold them, distract them, or in some cases ignore them. Then there are the more severe ones that involve kicking, hitting, or the child holding their breath. These usually seemingly come out of nowhere and tend to go on and on and on, leaving many parents feeling helpless or like they are doing something wrong. Severe tantrums happen. But when they do with frequency, they can indicate a risk of anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems down the road.
While experts have long been unclear on why there’s such a stark difference, or even how to easily tell the difference between tantrums, Northwestern University researchers have just discovered a clue tied to youngsters’ linguistic abilities. Their survey of 2,000 parents of children aged 12 to 38 months revealed that toddlers with delayed vocabulary are twice as likely to have frequent or severe temper tantrums than those with typical language skills.
Children are considered “late talkers” if they are 24 months or older and know fewer than 50 words and no two-word combinations. Although it’s long been suspected that tantrum severity and frequency were somehow linked to language skills, a study lead by Elizabeth Norton, Ph.D., director of the Language, Education, and Reading Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern, is the first to solidify the connection. The fact that late talkers were a whopping two times more prone to severe and recurrent tantrums, Norton calls “striking.”
This matters because there is a correlation between severe temper tantrums and later mental health and language problems. “A child who has severe temper tantrums is at greater risk of mental health problems, and we know that many older kids have co-occurring mental health problems and language problems,” Norton says. Still, it doesn’t mean that severe temper tantrums are a surefire sign of struggles to come since researchers are still unclear how strong the connection is or why there are so many exceptions to the correlation.
As for whether late talking, but no severe tantrums, is itself a cause for concern, there is a bit more data to go by. “Among kids who are late talkers, about 40 percent go on to have difficulty with language,” Norton says. “But the other 60 percent are just late bloomers who catch up on their own with no intervention. Pediatricians tend to watch out for late talking, but at this age, they still won’t know whether the child will catch up over time or continue to have language difficulties when they are older.”
So what’s a parent to do? Unfortunately, you can’t curtail tantrums by more actively engaging in language lessons. There is no evidence to show that teaching more words to a toddler will minimize severe tantrums. Furthermore, “among that 40 percent of kids who go on to struggle with language, many of their parents were very interactive with them and talked to them all the time,” Norton says. “These children’s brains are simply set up in a way that makes it harder or take longer to learn language. For some kids, working on language skills will help them learn words, but others will continue to have problems regardless.”
Instead, parents can use this information to spot potential problems down the road: If your child is exhibiting both language development delays and severe tantrums, “bring up your concerns to your child’s pediatrician because they can help sort out the possibilities,” Norton says. “For example, some kids may go on to receive an autism diagnosis, while many others do not. But talking with a pediatrician about this is a great first step because they only see your child for just a short time and see a thin slice of their behavior, so it will help to fill them in on what is happening at home.”
And if you’re simply experiencing severe tantrums? Between the tears and screaming, you can relax a little knowing that this is perfectly normal behavior for a child. Annoying? Yes. Alarming? Sure. But like so much of childhood, this phase will be over before you know it.