Anger in Children’s Tantrums: A New, Quantitative, Behaviorally Based Model

  • Michael Potegal
  • Peihua Qiu


Because excessive anger in early childhood can predict later psychopathology, quantifying its intensity and time course is clinically important. Anger consists of a set of experiential, physiological, and behavioral responses whose coherence is sufficient to justify the assumption of a common latent variable that can vary in intensity. The relationships between anger intensity and various anger-driven behaviors in children’s tantrums are probabilistic, nonlinear, and different for each individual behavior. Although any one behavior can provide only a partial and indirect measure of anger intensity, the entire trajectory of anger across the tantrum may be reconstructed by combining the observed temporal distributions of the various behaviors. In particular, we observed that behaviors characteristic of lower intensities of anger tend to occur at both the beginning and the end of tantrums while behaviors linked to higher intensities of anger are distributed around a single early peak. Accordingly, our anger intensity-behavioral linkage function model reconstructs a single, common, latent anger intensity variable, MA(t), whose rise and fall controls the momentary probability of eight angry tantrum behaviors through linkage functions that are unique to each behavior. We introduce the MA50 as a practical measure of the “characteristic” intensity of the eight angry behaviors and note how the model may inform study of the neural substrates of anger.


Linkage Function Facial Expression Anger Expression Display Rule High Anger 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Collection of the Wisconsin data was supported by a grant to M. Potegal from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and by National Research Service Awards to M. Potegal from the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (F33 NS09638) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (F33 HD08208). At that time, the first author was a Fellow in the laboratory of Richard J. Davidson, where work was supported in part by an NIMH Center for Behavioral Sciences Research Grant (P50-MH52354) to the Wisconsin Center for Affective Neuroscience (R.J. Davidson, Director) and by an NIMH Research Scientist Award (KO5-MH00875). Collection of the Minnesota data and development of the anger intensity-linkage function model were supported by grants to M. Potegal from the National Institute for Mental Health (R03-MH58739) and from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R21 HD048426); this second stage was also supported by a Grant-in-Aid from University of Minnesota Graduate Faculties (Emotion and manipulation in toddler tantrums: Behavior/cortisol relations), the Viking Children’s Fund (643–7257) and an equipment grant from the Minnesota Medical Foundation.

We thank the University of Minnesota undergraduates who coded the various Minnesota tantrum records including Vanessa Downs, Ross Oden, and Jennifer B. Swanson. We thank Kristin Buss, Nancy Eisenberg, James Green, Jan Hoeksma, Jill Kilderman, Alicia Kunin-Batson, Harriet Oster, and Cynthia Stifter for their critical reading of earlier versions of this paper, in part or in whole. David Mottet improved the graphics of Fig. 12.2.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

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