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Family Almanac

5-Year-Old's Temper Tantrums Need Patience & Detective Work

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page C08

Q.Our 5-year-old son still has screaming, crying tantrums, and sometimes he'll even throw stuff.

These explosions started when he was 2, and he never outgrew them, even though everyone said he would.

He's bright and well-spoken and can communicate his feelings easily, but he still has moments when he completely loses it, and my husband and I have no idea how to help him get over these outbursts. It seems to help if he goes into his room when he gets so upset, but he is too big for me to get him there. The last time I tried to move him, he almost knocked me down the stairs.

We have decided that nothing can stop these tantrums; they just have to run their course. But is this all right? Is there some way we can head them off? Will he ever outgrow them? We try to talk to him about the tantrum afterward, but this doesn't prevent future explosions.

We do know that these tantrums are more likely to occur when our son is tired. He still needs to nap for an hour or two in the afternoon and to sleep for 11 or 12 hours at night, but that's not easy now that he's in kindergarten.

A.Your child would probably do better if you gave him hugs and patience when he's pitching a fit, rather than timeouts in his room.

He also needs you to find out why he's still having tantrums, so you can correct the cause.

Some children explode because they're exhausted or overstimulated or their home life is a mess, and they need more rest and peace and structure in their lives. Others fall apart if their blood sugar takes a nosedive -- a problem easily fixed by frequent protein snacks.

And then there are the children who have special dietary needs. Gluten or casein may cause tantrums and other difficult behavior, while dyes, preservatives and salicylates in foods make some children go berserk. Or they flip out because they're allergic to something they've eaten or smelled. Even healthy foods such as milk or eggs or pork -- or common inhalants such as pine needles or cat dander -- can sensitize some of the mast cells in a child's body, and these cells will cause the same problem every time he is around those allergens.

If his sensitized cells are in his sinuses, they may cause headaches; if they're in his gut, they may cause diarrhea or constipation; and if they're in the central nervous system, they can cause tantrums -- or sadness or agitation or other unwelcome emotions -- and they can also make him extra-sleepy.

This knowledge has been around for a while, but a peer-reviewed study in the October issue of Physiology and Behavior presents still other possibilities that could change the way doctors handle all kinds of behavior problems.

Scientists at the nonprofit Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Ill., tested 207 consecutive patients who had been diagnosed with various problems, such as attention-deficit disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder and violence. They found that all of the patients had biochemical abnormalities such as metabolic disorders, malabsorption issues, glucose regulation problems or metal overloads.

Most of these patients had been treated with behavior modification, psychotherapy or drugs -- or all three -- with no success, but the center's scientists tried a different approach. They made individualized nutritional supplements for each patient and had dramatically successful results. Of the 76 percent of patients who took their supplements, more than half were symptom-free within four to eight months; the behavior of 88 to 92 percent of them improved significantly, depending on their particular problem.

Although your son's tantrums may not be serious enough to take him to Illinois for a day of testing at this clinic, he does need you to be his advocate, his defender and, above all, his detective. Brain imaging, genetic research and computer models are giving scientists the kind of information they need to develop a host of treatments, but it may take 15 to 20 years before most doctors will be knowledgeable enough or willing to try them. If you wait for that to happen, your child could still be having tantrums when he goes to college.

Instead, keep up with the latest research on www.nlm.nih.gov, where the National Library of Medicine posts scientific studies from around the world, and be willing to try safe new drug-free treatments. Until you find one that works, however, hold your son gently when he falls apart and talk to him softly in a singsong. A child needs love most when he's being his most unlovable.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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