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Tantrums aren't just for toddlers: Here's how to handle others' outbursts at any age

No matter where you encounter your next tantrum, we'll help you understand what's motivating this bad behavior and how to diffuse it.
/ Source: TODAY

Every parent of a toddler knows a good tantrum can be a show-stopper, but the worst news of all is that tantrums aren’t limited to the “terrible twos.”

From tweens snapping back when asked a simple question to co-workers who rage over an empty pot of coffee in the break room, tantrums are an unfortunate part of every stage of our lives.

But no matter where or when you encounter your next tantrum, we’ll help you understand what’s motivating this bad behavior and how your reaction can diffuse the situation.

The toddler tantrum

Portrait of crying baby girl. ; Shutterstock ID 175102535; PO:
Portrait of crying baby girl. ; Shutterstock ID 175102535; PO: today.comShutterstock

Looks like: Physical fits, such as crying, flailing one’s limbs, kicking and screaming.

Motivated by: An inability to express oneself properly, and the realization that bad behavior holds power.

What to do: Toddlers are too young to understand and draw connections between discipline and their behavior. Their tantrums often have to do with the gap in their language skills meeting their realization that out-of-control behavior can elicit a response. In terms of discipline, what works one day with a toddler may not work quite so well the next, so it’s a good idea to have a large “toolbox” to handle bad behavior at this age. Simply ignoring the tantrum often works wonders.

Meanwhile, distracting with humor or excitement can work with some kids on some days. But one of my personal favorites is to offer a toddler a few choices. For the child who refuses to put on shoes before going outside, you might say, “Wow, you have a lot of cool shoes! Let’s count them!” Then, “Do you want to wear the red ones or the blue ones?” Be excited about the choice and refocus their brain towards picking a pair of shoes, rather than wearing them at all.

The elementary school tantrum

Teenager problems - Mother comforts her troubled teenage daughter; Shutterstock ID 210886192; PO:
Teenager problems - Mother comforts her troubled teenage daughter; Shutterstock ID 210886192; PO: today.comShutterstock

Looks like: Playing the “unfair” card; calling you names for not doing what they want.

Motivated by: Testing limits to see what works and a strong (if misinformed) sense of justice. Example A: “That’s not fair! Everyone else gets to stay up until 9:30, and I’m the only one who still has a bedtime. You guys are the worst parents!”

What to do: Implement logical consequences. Elementary age kids complain a lot about what’s “fair” and what isn’t. They’re old enough to feel injustices, but not old enough to appreciate the nuances of why they happen. These kinds of tantrums are meant to draw out a big reaction from you. Often, ignoring them or responding with a pleasant “yeah, that’s tough that you feel that way” can be more powerful than trying to convince them you’re right.

Other times, the insult is too offensive, and you’ll feel the need to insist upon more respectful discourse. In that case, make sure you’re choosing logical consequences — ones that are actually relevant to the offense. Don’t take away screen time, for instance, if there's no lesson there.

If a child is being insulting or disrespectful, you might say, “You’re being really disrespectful to me, and that makes it hard for me to do all the nice things I usually do for you. For the rest of the week, it’s going to be your job to do the dishes after dinner.”

The tween tantrum

Boy crying while standing up in park; Shutterstock ID 281011211; PO: - mish
Boy crying while standing up in park; Shutterstock ID 281011211; PO: - mishShutterstock

Looks like: Being argumentative for the sake of arguing. A recent study found that the middle school years are the most stressful time in a mom’s life, and for good reason: Tweens are going through a ton of physical, neurological and emotional changes.

Motivated by: Those very same developmental changes, which tend to collide with the desire for independence that occurs in middle school. You ask, “How did that math test go?” and your tween shouts, “Fine! Why do you have to be so angry about it?!” before storming off to her room.

What to do: Adopt what I call the “Botox Brow." (Don’t worry, no needles necessary!) Starting at about age 11, your tween’s brain begins to undergo some radical shifts. One of the biggest changes is that the part of the brain responsible for reading facial expressions takes a back seat to the emotional center of the brain. Middle schoolers don’t use the same part of their brains to read someone’s facial expression as adults do. And as a result, they often think adults are mad at them when they’re just ... not.

So, when you wrinkle your forehead to talk to a middle schooler — maybe you’re just concerned or curious — they'll likely read it as anger.

I suggest all parents of tweens adopt a brow free of wrinkles. It'll help to diffuse the situation, and tweens are much more likely to talk calmly to you instead of throwing a fit.

The teen tantrum

Mature mother and teenager daughter after quarrel at home; Shutterstock ID 92145997; PO:
Mature mother and teenager daughter after quarrel at home; Shutterstock ID 92145997; PO: today.comShutterstock

Looks like: Defiance. They may not come home by curfew, for instance.

Motivated by: An assertion of independence coupled with an attempt to argue on the same footing as you, their parents.

What to do: Schedule a time to talk so that you can find a compromise when emotions aren’t hot. The older your child is, the less you have to worry about responding to on-the-spot behavioral problems. This means you’ve got more time to make smart choices, and you can buy yourself time by saying, “I’m going to get back to you once I’ve had time to think about this.”

Trust me, this makes teens nervous. They'll know you’re thinking it over, and it puts the ball back in your court. Remember, your behavior sets a standard that your kids will take with them into the world. They need to learn how to make their case respectfully. Teach them this by showing them how to politely engage in a debate.

If you’re not willing to compromise on something, you can still acknowledge their feelings and offer another way for them to gain some ground. For instance, “I feel strongly that curfew needs to be midnight as a general rule, but I understand that it’s important for you to have more time with your friends, and I respect that. Are there other ways I can help you with that? I would be willing to be more lenient on special occasions if we can come to an agreement on what would be fair."

The adult tantrum

Businessman having stress in the office; Shutterstock ID 154308860; PO:
Businessman having stress in the office; Shutterstock ID 154308860; PO: today.comShutterstock

Looks like: Your spouse, adult sibling or co-worker explodes over something relatively minor. In your opinion, the reaction is bigger than the situation warrants.

Motivated by: The truth is, like kids, adults sometimes react impulsively and emotionally. Perhaps they have other things stressing them out, and this is just the last straw that triggered an outburst.

What to do: Unlike kids, we know most adults can actually understand that their behavior is inappropriate; they just may not be able to process that in the moment. So, since their tantrum is likely triggered by other stressors, it helps to lead with empathy. Acknowledge how the person feels, but don't wait around too long, and certainly don't become an emotional punching bag.

If this is someone you care about, say something like, "You're upset. I'd like to figure out to help with this, but let's just talk later when we're both calm."

Then, leave! Just as with kids, when you choose not to fan the fire, it burns out faster. Most adults will naturally feel remorse if they see you behaving reasonably in spite of their tantrum.

At any age...

Sure, they're unpleasant (and sometimes even emotionally scarring). But it's important to remember that tantrums are an expression — albeit an extreme and outrageous one — of a real feeling. Whether you're dealing with a 3-year-old or a 30-year-old, take a step back and acknowledge those emotions first. “I understand this is difficult," "I know you feel upset," "I know you don’t want to," and "I can see that you’re angry” are good places to start. The key is to remain unemotional yourself, as it's the best way to encourage and foster similar behavior.

It can also be helpful to surround yourself with a community of other parents who are likely dealing with the same thing. Check out the TODAY Parents Facebook page.