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Adult Temper Tantrums: Helping parents navigate their emotions

Updated: May 13, 2021

Have you ever screamed at your kids? I mean red faced, screamed at them? Admit it.

I have and it sucked.

We had just moved into a new house (that was not baby proofed yet), I had a baby and a toddler, a nap schedule, cooking, cleaning, unpacking... and all my other mom responsibilities. My stress was at a boiling point. My sweet, little toddler using the faucet as a play toy was just the straw that broke this camel’s back. Suddenly all of that pent up anger and frustration came spewing out like red hot lava, all aimed at this innocent little four year old.

Thankfully, it only took a few incidents before I decided I have to change. It was not fair to my child to direct all of my stress toward him. So I made the decision to change. And I did.

The screaming stopped immediately, but the problem wasn’t gone. It manifested in a whole new way: snapping at people. This wasn’t new behavior for me. Whenever I got tired, stressed, frustrated, you name it, I snapped. I was short with loved ones, rude even. I justified it because, well, I was stressed! How can I help it? The amount of stress I was dealing with was far too much for me to handle!

But then I learned that I had a choice.

I didn’t have to snap at my husband or my kids if I got overwhelmed, I chose to snap at them. Now don’t get me wrong, in the heat of the moment, it did not feel like I had a choice. My husband showered and used my towel again leaving me to step out of the shower, soaking wet, only to wrap myself up in, you guessed it - a soaking wet towel. Or my kids wouldn’t stop shouting when I asked them politely and I’m on a phone call with the doctor. Or… you name it. They did any number of things to annoy or upset me, so I got to snap at them. That was their just desserts. Only… I started to realize that they can’t make me feel anything. That’s giving someone else far too much control over my life. I choose what I feel. Again, in the moment it doesn’t feel like I’m choosing my feelings, but I am.

I also thought about the fact that I always talk to my kids about allowing all emotions in. I tell them all emotions are normal and OK. It’s only when those emotions lead to bad behavior that they will get a consequence. So why didn’t I have that same grace with myself when I felt strong emotions of my own? And why didn’t I hold myself to the same standard when I had temper tantrums of my own and snapped at my family? Definitely a process I wanted to start with myself, just as I had been with my kids.

Then I discovered Susan David. If you’ve never heard her Ted Talk on emotional courage, you must watch it. It is powerful. David is a Psychologist who delves into the ways in which emotions help to inform our identity, our values and help us to make choices on how to react to situations, at any given emotion.

The more I ruminated on this, the more it became obvious to me in everyday situations. My kids weren’t actually stressing me out. In nearly every situation when I felt overwhelmed, there was an underlying stressor causing the emotion. I needed to pay an important bill but didn’t have time. I couldn’t find something I needed. I was late for something. The kids simply sprinkled a little chaos on top of an already overwhelming moment and voila, I’m officially super stressed out.

David stresses the idea that emotions are data, not directives - meaning, that emotions clue you in to what’s important to you, what you need. They are not a directive to act a certain way, i.e. they are not permission to snap at everyone, Kyriaki.

OK, so I realized my kids are not the problem. I started recognizing my emotions, listening to them and finding out why seemingly ordinary things, like an off comment with a friend, bothered me so much. Great start. But it didn’t fix the snapping. Next, I had to choose my response. That was the harder part.

But one question got me through it. That question is: “Is this how I want to respond?” Or put another way, “Is this how I want to show up as a parent?” Just before I snapped, I would stop and ask myself those, questions. One hundred percent of the time, the answer was no. It wasn’t the way I wanted to respond and it wasn’t the way I wanted to show up. So, even in the heat of the emotion, and even before I figured out what was really bothering me, I chose to respond in love. I chose to smile. I chose to be kind. And you know what? It felt good. Really good.

Snapping felt kinda good, in that it offered an emotional release when my fuse was about to blow and I needed to let out some of the steam. But this felt better. It felt like putting out the fuse altogether. And it felt like a breath of fresh air.

The hard work wasn’t over, though. Once I responded in kindness, and the proverbial straw on my back was gone, I still had to figure out what was bugging me. Often it wasn’t something obvious. Most often it was something small, almost miniscule, like an interaction with my husband or my best friend that rubbed me the wrong way or stirred up tough questions in me. In the moment, the interaction came and went in a blink, but the emotion lingered - sometimes all day.

Once I figured out what it was, I asked myself why it was stirring up this particular emotion. Through this process of checking in with myself constantly, it became clear to me that I highly value relationships and I value my family above all else. So if something was off, or if I felt misunderstood, in one of those relationships, it deeply affected me. Once I got to the bottom of this, I was able to resolve it, with the person, and with myself.

OK. Finally. So I realized my kids are not the problem. I asked myself how I want to respond and made the correct choice. Then I dove head first into the emotion to discover answers that calmed me and gave me more certainty about myself and my values. A-Plus. The test is over right?


Now I had to duplicate it. Over. And over. And over again. They say it takes anywhere from 14 to 28 days to build a habit and up to 66 days to make that habit second nature. So I had a lot of work ahead of me. And I am pleased to report that in the last several months, other than once when I snapped at everyone because I lost my cell phone, I successfully checked in with myself and avoided snapping in every single overwhelming moment.

So, if you want to get a handle on your own emotions and temper tantrums, here’s a quick summation of my process:

  1. Realize no one can make you feel anything - Your kids, your partner, your people are not the problem.

  2. Allow all emotions - All emotions are normal and OK. Don’t judge yourself for having them.

  3. Choose your response - Ask yourself, “Is this how I want to respond?” And make the choice that is in line with your values.

  4. Figure out the root problem - Dive headfirst into the emotion and find out why you are feeling it. Resolve it.

  5. Repeat - Repeat steps 1-4 over and over and over until they become second nature.

I hope my temper tantrum journey can help you like it helped me, and quite honestly helped my family. In the process, though, give yourself some grace. We’re only human. We’re not going to get it right 100-percent of the time, and that’s OK. The most important thing is that you’re trying and you’re communicating clearly with your kids and your partner along the way.

And... apologize.

We make our kids apologize when they behave badly, so why shouldn’t we apologize too? It’s a great example, afterall. Apologizing and letting them know it’s not them that’s stressing you out will help them to not internalize overwhelming emotions that are directed at them in the future.

Enjoy it the process and the freedom of finally being in control of your emotions. You deserve it. And as always, feel free to reach out with your progress! I’d love to hear how you’re doing!

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