Children’s Misbehaviour Indicates Mental Health Problems

Researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, USA, led by Lauren Wakschlag, have developed an easy-to-administer questionnaire specifically designed to distinguish the typical misbehaviour of early childhood from more concerning misbehaviour.

This will enable early identification and treatment of emerging mental health problems, key to preventing young children struggling with their behaviour from spiralling downward into chronic mental health problems.

The new tool also will prevent rampant mislabelling and overtreatment of typical misbehaviour.

In a surprising key finding, the study also debunks the common belief that temper tantrums are rampant among young children. Although temper tantrums among preschoolers are common, they are not particularly frequent, the research shows.

Less than 10 percent of young children have a daily tantrum. That pattern is similar for girls and boys, poor and non-poor children and Hispanic, white and African-American children.

Until recently, the only diagnostic tools available for pre-school behaviour problems were those geared to older children and teens with more severe, aggressive behaviour. More recently, there has been emphasis on measures developed specifically for preschool children.

For the new study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers developed the new questionnaire, the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB), to ask parents of almost 1,500 diverse preschoolers, age three to five, to answer questions about their child’s behaviour.

The questionnaire asked about the frequency, quality and severity of many temper tantrum behaviours and anger management skills over the past month.

The results allowed researchers to rate children along a continuum of behaviour from typical to atypical, rather than focusing only on extreme behaviour.

The study has been published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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