3 Keys to Understanding Temper Tantrums (At All Ages)

Temper tantrums start within the first year of life and continue for most of us until the day we die. Hopefully, these outbursts mature to involve more self-awareness and healthier methods of self-expression, but nonetheless, everybody has tantrums to some extent.

Key #1: Getting Thwarted

Temper tantrums or unpleasant outbursts, at any age, are triggered by a universal core experience. Tantrums happen when we get thwarted. To be thwarted, means to be opposed; to have your hopes or aspirations defeated or baffled. 

Key #2: Feeling Frustrated

Even as I write the definition, I feel a familiar emotional response. Being thwarted leads to feeling frustrated – or more accurately – feeling FRUSTRATED!!! Kids and adults alike, hate being hindered. We hate getting stuck. We despise having a goal in mind, trying to progress toward it, only to have something or someone get in our way. No one likes defeat, the dashing of their hopes, or a sense of being baffled by their opposition.

This experience of being thwarted and feeling frustrated ignites the fire under every temper tantrum. When a kid is screaming in the grocery store, I guarantee he wanted something – could be food, attention, freedom to move, or sleep – which was thwarted and accompanied by an intense feeling of frustration. When a grown-up experiences road rage, they want to be able to move freely on the road, but instead is hindered (thwarted) by other drivers, thus creating an intense feeling of frustration. The examples are endless because being thwarted and feeling frustrated happen all the time! Romans 8:20 even testifies that creation was subjected to frustration which causes us groaning and suffering.

Key #3: Making an Effort Toward Change

This intense frustration demands attention. It insists we alleviate our suffering. To quash our discomfort, we enlist all our gumption to change the situation, we flex in whatever way we can think of to try to get unstuck. Rightly so – staying stuck is awful! But, it is important to understand that it is this motivation to change our situation that can lead to the outward manifestation of tantrums. The motivation is good and needed, but the management of our reactions when we’re frustrated is really hard.

Dr. Thomas Phelan’s mid-90s book called, 1-2-3 Magic, suggested three predictable forms of action-taking in the face of frustration. He later expanded his list to six behavioural responses, but I prefer the simplicity of his first draft. Since reading his material over two decades ago, I have tested the concepts in real life situations and believe they are still helpful in understanding and moving through tantrum behaviours as efficiently as possible.

The pattern leading up to a tantrum goes like this: THWARTED => FRUSTRATED => EFFORT TOWARD CHANGE. 

According to Phelan’s work, efforts toward change most often manifest as:

  1. Begging and Pleading (Negotiation)
  2. Aggression, or
  3. Martyrdom (Manipulation)

Before we jump to the conclusion that these strategies are inherently bad, let’s remember that their goal is to create an avenue for change. And being motivated to change is a good thing. No one of these strategies is morally better than another. Each of them to some degree are reasonable attempts to change the situation. Each of them to an extreme, can be hurtful to the people or things in their way.

Let’s take a deeper look at each one.

Negotiation in a healthy manner looks like reasonable bargaining to find a way around an undesired obstacle. But when frustration is high – which is pretty much every time we get thwarted – it can tend to look more like begging, pleading, and badgering. Taken to an extreme, it can become an incessant, abusive, verbal barrage.

Aggression in a healthy manner is being willing to enter into conflict or confrontation even if it requires force. This too, can be helpful in overcoming a hindrance. But when frustration is high in times of being thwarted, aggression can lose track of its positive ambition and morph into intimidating increases in volume, harshness, and posturing. Taken to an extreme, it can become screaming, name-calling, threats, and physical violence toward a person or property – which is definitely NOT healthy functioning.

Manipulation in a healthy manner is the capacity to skillfully influence people or situations. But again, when frustration is high, manipulation can become biased toward thwart-removal at all costs – even if what it requires is unscrupulous or malicious toward another person. At its best, manipulation equals influence. Loaded with frustration though, it can look more like self-pity, playing the victim, or a butter-up. At its worst extreme, manipulation can be responsible for passive-aggressive threats, gas-lighting, and selfish control of others.

So, here’s the pattern again: THWARTED => FRUSTRATED => EFFORT TOWARD CHANGE (via negotiation, aggression, or manipulation). 

Noticing Without Judgment

Most people I have observed, tend to have a native tongue, or a knee-jerk response to feeling frustrated. If you look for it, I think you’ll be able to see it too. First look at yourself. What thoughts run through your head when you don’t get what you want? Do you mentally argue your case (negotiation)? Do you place blame on others or relish the thought of a vengeful zinger to put the other person in their place (aggression)? Or do you pity yourself with thoughts like, ‘Why do I always have to be the one to give?’ or ‘If they really loved me, understood me, or valued me, they wouldn’t stand in my way,’ (manipulation)?

Once you have some clarity about your response pattern, consider those you know well. How do your kids respond when they encounter a “no” or a boundary of any kind? How about your friends or your father-in-law? When your partner is disappointed, does he/she default to excessive explaining (negotiation), to lashing out with a hurtful dig (aggression), or does she/he lock in to people-pleasing or passive-aggressive behaviours to control the relationship (manipulation)?

As you reflect, try to notice what’s going on without judgment. Noticing is a very powerful tool. Increasing your awareness of these patterns at work in you and around you can transform the way you function in conflictual relationships. Understanding what’s going on for yourself or for others when frustration is high, can turn very confusing exchanges into clear, navigable interactions. 

Decoding tantrums has the capacity to make you less reactive and more able to stay focused on the issue at hand. It can empower you to circumvent excess emotional hoopla associated with being thwarted, and remain committed to your values. And it can impart wisdom for more accurate communication, more opportunity for resolution, and better boundaries. Understanding tantrum behaviours can allow you to move through tantrum behaviors much more efficiently. 

And this will be the topic of our next post: 4 Steps to Move Through Temper Tantrums Effectively. Tune in next week to learn some practical strategies to keep your cool, and hold your ground even in the face of conflict.

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