Last week we started a 2-part series on temper tantrums. We explored the universal pattern that leads to tantrums and concluded with a promise of practical strategies to move through these unpleasant outbursts without losing your cool. If you missed the first article, 3 Keys to Understanding Temper Tantrums (At All Ages), you can follow the link to give it a quick read.
To quickly summarize that article, tantrums can occur at any age, when we experience being thwarted. Being thwarted leads to feeling frustrated. Feeling frustrated leads to efforts to change, which often take on one of three forms: negotiation, aggression, or manipulation. Effort toward each of these can be effective producers of change at some level, but inappropriate when taken to an extreme. If these responses to being thwarted cause harm to another person or their property, the tactics become bullying behaviour rather than problem solving behaviour.
Today, we’ll build on this information and look at four keys to move through tantrums as effectively as possible. Let’s get started.
Step 1: Make Space for Frustration
Picture a child learning to tie their shoes or trying to do a puzzle that’s a bit too hard. First, they try earnestly. Then, as they are hindered from easy success (thwarted), frustration begins to mount. Frustration might sound like grunting, huffing, crying, saying “this is stupid”, or “I can’t”. It might look like quitting, throwing the object, or shoving it away.
Very often, the tension experienced when someone is frustrated, causes people who are close to try to take away the frustration. We tie the kid’s shoes for them; we put the puzzle piece in the right place. These behaviours are intended to be helpful, but rather than equipping the child to move through frustration using effective strategies, they eliminate the necessity of developing such skills.
Parents (or spouses, friends, teachers, etc.) often default to a role of tension reliever, rather than being supportive of effective growth. Making space for frustration is a beautiful gift. Shaming, hushing or rescuing from frustration undercuts growth. To eliminate thwarting experiences is to rob character development; to coach through thwarting experiences is to foster maturity.
Meeting a frustrated individual with empathy and patience is disarming. We can say things like, “Wow, I see you feel really stuck. How frustrating!” “Ugh, there’s something standing in your way and you can’t figure out how to move it. I hate it when that happens too.” Or, “Oh man, you really want that; so frustrating you can’t have it right now.” These types of statements provide space and support for the individual to discover how to deal with being frustrated – a skill imperative for healthy functioning.
Step 2: Be Aware of Your Own Experience of Getting Thwarted
Being near someone who is thwarted often leads to being thwarted ourselves. Think of how often a parent responds to their child’s frustrated outburst with intense frustration of their own. The child may have a tantrum because she can’t have a particular toy, then the parent has a tantrum because she can’t hush the child’s reaction.
Being aware of the ways in which we are also being thwarted will go a long way to halting knee-jerk, emotional reactions. Know yourself. Try to discover whether you tend toward negotiation, aggression or manipulation when you don’t get what you want. Listen for the familiar voice that speaks to you when you feel frustrated.
Taking ownership for your reaction to being thwarted can help you stay on track when others are also thwarted around you.
Step 3: Set Boundaries
Boundaries are “IF…THEN” statements which guide behaviour. IF my friend repeatedly stands me up, THEN I will no longer prioritize time with her. IF my son refuses to do chores, THEN I will not drive him to his friend’s house. IF my partner calls me names, THEN I will end our dialogue by leaving the house. Clear boundaries state a condition and a consequence. IF a certain thing happens, THEN a predictable other thing will happen. That’s it.
Let’s say a teenage girl wants to go hang out with her friends, but she has chores to do first, thus she’s thwarted and feels frustrated. The parent, setting an effective boundary, may say, “IF you clean your room, THEN you can head out with your friends.”
The teen will then, most likely, respond with one of the three attempts to change the situation. She may say, “Please mom, come on, can’t I go out first? All my friends are free right now,” (negotiation). Or maybe, “That’s so stupid! You are impossible,” (aggression). Or she may say, “Whatever, you never care about what I want,” (manipulation). Each of which is an unpleasant outburst to some extent.
In order to move through this tantrum effectively, the parent could empathize with the teen’s frustration, keep their own frustration in check, and state a secondary boundary such as, “IF you continue badgering me (raising your voice or making snide comments), THEN you will be required to clean your room and the bathroom before you go.”
The best boundaries are clear, specific, easily repeated, and task focused. They help curb tantrums because they outline expectations and highlight which attempts to change the situation are appropriate and which attempts are inappropriate.
Step 4: Keep Perspective
The voice of frustration is not usually a well thought out conclusion based on unbiased reflections. It is a guttural “UGHHH!” stated a hundred different ways. It is, “Get out of my way, obstacle!”, directed at whoever seems to be near the thwarting.
Explaining, justifying, getting aggressive or being emotionally devastated in response to the voice of frustration adds to its escalation, rather than being helpful. Keeping perspective of how frustration presents, and how deeply motivated we are to get free when we are thwarted, can allow us to remain steady and clear even when others around us may not be.
Humans get thwarted. In response, we feel frustrated. This frustration is unpleasant and it motivates us to try to create change. This motivation is positive, yet sometimes causes inappropriate tantrums. When faced with a tantrum in ourselves or in another person, we will be more likely to move through it calmly if we make space for the frustration, pay attention to our own experience of being thwarted, set boundaries with “IF…THEN” statements, and keep a healthy perspective of how frustration looks and sounds.
If you’d like to do something in response to what you’ve read, you could start by praying. Ask God for insight into how frustration is playing out in you and around you. Be open with Him about how you view yourself and how hooked you get into other people’s frustration. Consider thanking God for the areas we’ve discussed where you have seen Him working.
If you’d like further help with regard to this content, our therapists would love to walk with you.
Lisa is a Certified Canadian Counsellor with over 20 years experience. Her passion is to integrate faith-based practices with effective psychological tools to assist people toward healing and freedom in Jesus Christ.