Can tantrums and irritability be a sign of future depression?
The Sector > Research > Can childhood tantrums and irritability be a sign of future depression?

Can childhood tantrums and irritability be a sign of future depression?

by Freya Lucas

January 10, 2024

​​Children whose irritability does not reduce between three and seven years are at higher risk of depression and self-harm as teenagers, researchers have found. 


The new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), is based on data from over 7,000 children who participated in the Millennium Cohort Study: a contemporary, nationally representative UK birth cohort. 


Parents answered questions about their child’s irritability at 3, 5, and 7 years, and teenagers reported depressive symptoms and self-harm at 14 years. This study found that children with irritability that did not decrease between the ages of 3 and 7 years experienced higher levels of depression and self-harm in adolescence, whereas irritability at 3 years only was not associated with later depression.   


While irritability and ‘tantrums’ are viewed as common behaviour for children in the toddler and preschool years, this generally approves as children get older. 


“This study suggests that while some degree of irritability is part of normal child development, we can identify children who struggle with persistent irritability from as young as 5 years, thus providing an opportunity for prevention and early intervention,” study author Dr Ramya Srinivasan said.  


“The findings emphasize the importance of early childhood for emotional development. Support for parents of young children has been reduced in many countries in recent years and was substantially disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is concerning and a possible missed opportunity,” she added.   


Changes in Early Childhood Irritability and Its Association With Depressive Symptoms and Self-Harm During Adolescence in a Nationally Representative United Kingdom Birth Cohort​ is available here. 

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