Conference Coverage

Characterize duration when seeking etiology of tantrums in children



– Although explosive outbursts or tantrums accompany nearly every psychiatric illness that affects children, the specific features may help identify an etiology, according to Gabrielle A. Carlson, MD.

“There are two components of irritability,” explained Dr. Carlson, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Medical Center. “One is how often the child loses his or her temper, and the other is what they do when they lose their temper.”

Dr. Gabrielle Carlson

Dr. Gabrielle Carlson

Frequent temper tantrums or explosive outbursts suggest that there is underlying psychopathology, but they are nonspecific to the underlying etiology, Dr. Carlson explained at a pediatric psychopharmacology update held by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She compared it to a fever that reveals the presence of illness without providing much information about what the illness is.

To be useful in identifying the source, the characterization of explosive outbursts must be undertaken in the context of the patient’s history and the duration and types of tantrum-related behaviors, particularly aggressive behavior toward others, according to Dr. Carlson.

Presenting a diagnostic algorithm relevant to children with frequent explosive outbursts, Dr. Carlson suggested that pathways differ for young children and adolescents. Yet, the first step – which is evaluating whether or not irritability is a feature of the patient’s disposition when not in the midst of a tantrum – is common to both groups.

In young children with new onset of explosive outbursts, stressors in school, such as bullying, or family, such as abuse, represent an appropriate initial focus. In adolescents, initial attention should be paid to the potential role of mood disorders, particularly depression, mania, or anxiety, according to Dr. Carlson.

For most patients and most etiologies, tantrums follow a trigger and then resolve quickly. When tantrums do not resolve quickly in patients who remain generally irritable even when they are not having a tantrum, there is an increased likelihood of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD).

Relative to tantrums associated with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or affective disorders, explosive outbursts associated with DMDD are also more likely to include aggression toward others.

Physical restraint to safeguard the patient or others during a tantrum is uncommon in most conditions associated with tantrums, with the exception of DMDD. Greater aggression tracks with greater DMDD severity. According to data presented by Dr. Carlson, 92% of a clinical sample of DMDD patients exhibited physical aggression, compared with none of those in a community sample.

Tantrums lasting more than 30 minutes were observed in 60% of the clinic sample, versus only 12.5% of the community sample.

Explosive outbursts “are not an uncommon or trivial problem,” according to Dr. Carlson, who cited data suggesting that 70% of children between the ages of 5 and 12 years hospitalized for a psychiatric diseases are referred for an explosive outburst.

She believes that a systematic approach toward characterizing the tantrum will be helpful in understanding the underlying etiology and appropriate treatment. Using such tools as the Irritability and Rages Inventory or the Affective Reactivity Index Child Form, clinicians should seek to evaluate the frequency of tantrums, the duration, and the patient’s symptom burden between tantrums.

If explosive outbursts are rare, they are unlikely to be due to DMDD or affective disorders, such as bipolar disease. If frequent in a patient with chronic psychopathology, those who are generally “fine until frustrated” are the ones more likely to have ADHD or even oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

The less common profile, which is rage that does not completely resolve, suggests DMDD, a condition that Dr. Carlson described with the mnemonic OI VEY to convey key features. The letters stand for Outbursts that are frequent, Irritable mood in the absence of an outburst, Very chronic (more than 1 per year), Explained by other co-existing conditions, such as mania, and Young (starts between ages 6 and 10 years).

Although tantrums are the way in which children with a broad array of psychiatric conditions express frustration, Dr. Carlson said it is not clear if the mechanisms for irritability and explosive outbursts are shared across conditions. Despite the guidance she offered for linking specific tantrum features with DMDD, she also reiterated that tantrums cannot be considered a symptom specific to any single etiology. The difference between etiologies for irritable children having a tantrum “is not how they feel, the difference is what they do,” Dr. Carlson suggested.

Dr. Carlson reported no relevant financial relationships.

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