Learning to Navigate Emotional Upsets and Tantrums at Any Age

Toddlers aren’t the only ones who have emotional upsets.

A big misconception I hear on a regular basis is that parents don’t need to talk about tantrums and emotional upsets because they don’t have a toddler anymore.

“We’re past that phase.”

This means that their kids are probably no longer throwing themselves on the floor when they’re upset. Not at home, in the grocery store, or in the drop off line at school.

But that doesn’t mean that they’re never upset.

In reality, we ALL have emotional upsets. Yes, even as adults.

And most of us need to learn how to regulate ourselves when we’re upset, to develop the capacity for maintaining connection through the upsets and not just isolating ourselves or our children. We don’t learn to regulate in isolation. We need each other, but we don’t always know how to use each other to help regulate. Chances are, it’s totally different than what you grew up with.

Chances are that your parents did whatever they felt they needed to do to make you stop being upset. And chances are that you probably do the same thing your parents did or you’re working to do something different.

Related Post: Tantrums Aren’t Just for Toddlers

What does this look like when we’re not talking about a toddler star-fishing on the kitchen floor or the cookie aisle?

The 5-year-old who just started school throws things or is mean to his sister when he comes home in the afternoon.

The 10-year-old who screams when things aren’t going her way.

The 12-year-old who hates to fly who shakes and cries once he’s through security.

The 14-year-old who just started high school for the first time and is having anxiety attacks.

Emotional upsets look different for everyone.

Maybe it looks like yelling for you.

Maybe even throwing things.

Maybe you just start crying sometimes.

Maybe you know why this happens, or maybe you feel completely hijacked emotionally.

In an adult, we might say that we’re in a “bad mood” or we’re angry or tired. Or we realize we’ve actually only eaten coffee and donuts all day, so that’s why we’re flipping our lid.

We often justify it for ourselves, and we minimize it in our kids. We have less compassion for the smaller people who have a smaller vocabulary and less space for regressions when they’re upset.

Related post: An Alternative View of Tantrums and Emotional Upsets

When we see our kids losing it, our adult brains want to understand WHY. If we can see a reasonable reason for the upset, we’re more likely to support. If we don’t understand the reason for the upset, we minimize, we try to talk them out of how they’re feeling, or we distract.

Why are they throwing themselves on the floor and screaming over not getting the cup they wanted?

We don’t get it.

When we can’t understand or clearly see “why,” we ignore. We mock. We invalidate. We try to distract them. We put them in time out.

But does that ultimately help them?

It may get us all through the moment and, honestly, sometimes that’s all we can manage to do.

But we’re disconnected from their experience.

We’re missing the connection that can happen here.

We’re missing the opportunity to help them learn to regulate themselves and their emotions, however old they are.

As an adult, I didn’t realize that I was having a lot of emotional upsets that were difficult for me to recover from. I hadn’t learned to regulate myself, my emotions and then my behavior, mostly because my emotions were shut down for a lot of reasons, partially because of my own personality and attachment. Actually, I didn’t learn how to express my emotions fully until I was in my 30’s. I didn’t know how to move through them and out the other side until about the same time. I didn’t know that someone could feel safe AND express feelings at the same time.

When my kids were little, I didn’t really get that, either. I wanted them to come to me when they were upset, but I had a very hard time with their expression of anger. And this was in the realm of “no longer toddlers” that I’m talking about here – both for me and for them.

Tantrums aren’t just for toddlers.

We all have experiences of being upset, of being dysregulated and not handling things the way we’d like to handle them.

And when we recognize that our children have reasons for those upsets (even if we don’t really get it), it gives us the opportunity to connect and actually help make it better this time, and the next time, too. Learning the skills to regulate and create more connection in the moment helps everyone to feel better, no matter how old we are and no matter what we call it.

We’re going to be starting a discussion-based class. If this conversation is interesting to you, you might also be interested in joining us for our live virtual class! Learn more here.


Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

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