AUG 30, 2022 1:00 PM PDT

Tracking, and Possibly Predicting, Childhood Tantrums

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Every kid has tantrums. Parents, teachers, everyone knows it. But there’s actually a very thin, often hard-to-discern line, between a tantrum that is just part of a child’s normal behavior and a tantrum that could indicate a child is at risk of developing a mental illness in the future. In particular, anxiety and mood disorders can be predicted by tantrums. The question is, how can we keep track of these tantrums and discern an average, everyday tantrum, from a tantrum with more baggage attached to it?

A psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst hopes, one day, to have a solution.

Making use of a $400,000+ grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Adam Grabell, assistant professor of psychology and brain sciences, plans to fund research developing and testing a device that both parents and children can wear to track, and potentially predict, tantrums. 

In a prior study that was used to secure NIH funding, Dr. Grabell teamed up with Drs. Jeremy Gummeson and Tauhidur Rahman to develop the wearable tracking device. Using 3-D printing technology, the device includes different sensors to gather health information, including an accelerometer and tags that can be attached to a child’s clothes to measure heart rate and sleep habits. In the initial study, parents and children ages 3 to 5 were studied.

Parents were studied because a parent's behavior contributes immensely to tantrum behaviors. 

From the initial study, researchers found that the devices could be worn for significant periods of time without interfering with daily life and still collect valuable data.

In their future work, researchers have plans to follow 60 child-caregiver pairs, recruiting half of participants with some kind of clinically-noted irritability. The goal is to develop their wearable devices into a system that could differentiate a normal tantrum from something indicative of a precursor to mental illness.  

They also hope their system could be helpful for children who are currently in therapy. Using the wide range of data, parents, caregivers, and their doctors could recognize patterns in behaviors that indicate a tantrum is oncoming, allowing for more robust at-home interventions.

Sources: Eurekalert!; The Journal of Pediatrics

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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