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Excessive tantrums may indicate depression

June 18, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Temper tantrums or depression? Temper tantrums are a rite of passage for many preschoolers and their parents.But a new study says certain types of tantrums may be indicators of more serious mental health problems. The findings could pave the way for early diagnosis and treatment.

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Look no further than YouTube to see classic temper tantrums, an experience that scares and often baffles parents.

"Clearly they are trying to get something out of their mind or their mouths that they can't quite express," said mother Corrie Marks.

"It's very frustrating," said mother Colleen Varadian. "I feel helpless sometimes."

But there are differences between the normal turn of temper and something more serious.

"There were parameters that could be looked at that were markers of more severe, more clinically significant tantrums," said Psychiatric Epidemiologist Joan Luby, MD.

According to the National Mental Health Association, one in three American children suffers from depression. Toddlers and children can suffer from depression with the same symptoms and severity as adults.

In addition to temper tantrums, depressed children may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school and cling to a parent.

Red flags include five or more tantrums a day for several consecutive days; tantrums lasting more than 20 minutes; an inability to calm themselves after a tantrum; and extremely aggressive behavior directed at a caregiver, an object or themselves during tantrums.

"Depressed children in particular were hurting themselves, banging their head against the walls, biting themselves, scratching themselves on average one time per tantrum," said Epidemiologist Andy Belden, Ph.D.

Unfortunately, even sweet kids will act out once in a while, so don't panic if this happens. But experts say it's important to identify troubled preschoolers because many mental disorders onset very early in life -- and they're better managed when treated early.

SIGNS OF SOMETHING BIGGER

TERRIBLE TWOS? Parents expect some childhood temper tantrums when their kids are young. It's all a part of the "terrible twos," right? But what if the tantrums continue for long periods of time, happen multiple times a day, or even become violent? It may not be a phase, like many parents would like to hope. In fact, those screaming fits could be a sign of a mental disorder: depression.

A GROWING EPIDEMIC: Just as depression rates seem to be on the rise among the adult population, childhood depression is a growing problem. According to the National Mental Health Association, one in three American children suffers from depression. Magellan Behavior Health, the leading mental health provider in the United States, reports that more than 3,500 of its nearly 149,000 members with depressive disorders are under age 10. In fact, it's a condition that's been taken seriously within the past two decades. In addition to temper tantrums, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), depressed children may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent, or worry that the parent may die. Ongoing studies with NIMH and Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., report toddlers and children suffer from depression with the same symptoms and severity as adults.

OTHER SIGNS INCLUDE:

  • Excessive crying and persistent sadness
  • Lack of enthusiasm or motivation
  • Increased agitation and irritability
  • Chronic fatigue and lack of energy
  • Withdrawal from family, friends and activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits (significant weight loss or gain, excessive sleep, insomnia)
  • Lack of concentration and memory loss
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Major developmental delays (in toddlers -- not walking, talking or expressing self)
  • Play that involves harm toward self or others, or that revolves around sad or morbid themes

 

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