Annie Keeling: Adult have tantrums, too |

Annie Keeling: Adult have tantrums, too

Annie Keeling

Bwwaaaaahhh! Sometimes we can be such big babies.

Baby Selves that is.

The Baby Self is found within the back brain. It is the part of our brains that first develops in utero. It desires deep nurturance, which we all so desperately need. It’s also in charge of survival and the 3F’s – fight, flight, or freeze.

While the 3F system is essential to the continuation of our species, it’s not that great for all the ways we truly want and need to connect within relationships.

Support Local Journalism

No matter the age, any number of triggers can send our Baby Selves right into one of those 3F’s — and take us along for the ride!


A trigger is something that sets off the 3F system. Whether it’s a real threat or one that feels threatening, the Baby Self doesn’t know the difference.

When triggered, humans don’t often have much impulse control over their reaction. It’s as if the behavior appears from nowhere and takes everyone by surprise.

The Baby Self in children is often triggered by events or actions that are not life-threatening, yet the ensuing tantrum might make it look like the world is ending. Adults will often try anything to get their child not to tantrum – or to stop as soon as possible if they do.

What many adults don’t realize is that there is an adult version of the tantrum as well. 

The Anger Snap

Think of an angry or terse reaction you’ve had recently. Maybe you raised your voice, left a conversation in a huff, made an offensive comment on a social media post, or threw an object at the wall (or wanted to!). Hello, Baby Self.

Some parents have trouble dispersing the anger. They may feel hurt or indignant, carrying a persistent upset about certain disrespectful behaviors. This may color the interactions they have with the child as the parent withholds connection.  

You might not be face down on the floor kicking and screaming, but the effect of these behaviors can feel just as intense as if you had, especially for the little ones around you.

An anger snap almost always pops up during or immediately after a triggering event, which is often an unwanted behavior by the child. It’s important to know that the child’s behavior doesn’t cause our anger. It triggers a reaction.

Let’s look at what I mean by that.

Parent observes child’s behavior: “My son hit that little girl.” Parent imagines: “He’s going to turn out to be abusive.” This triggers the thought: “I will have failed as a parent.” The thought triggers emotions: Guilt, shame, fear, sadness, anger. These emotions can feel so unbearable that we lash out.

Triggering Behavior

Think about a time when you were triggered by a child’s behavior. What behavior was it that set you off? 

It could be whining or crying for what the child wants; hurting a sibling; not listening/ignoring your voice; loud, yelling, screaming; refusal to cooperate; breaking toys or property; hitting, biting, violence – or more.

Take a moment to identify the behaviors that trigger you most.

Triggered Thoughts

Just like in the hitting example above, our children’s behaviors can trigger thoughts and emotions — and we give that meaning. There is often a “should,” expectation, fear, blame, or stress involved. Here are some examples of what we think about our child’s behaviors and the meanings we attach.

I don’t know how to make this stop. 

I feel out of control, too! 

I should have this figured out.(I’m a horrible parent).

I cannot protect you. 

Tantrums scare me. (I am afraid my child will hurt himself or someone else).

You might fail.

If you’re this bad at 3, how much worse will you be at 13!  (Fear of the future).

Am I turning into my parent?

You remind me of my ex, spouse, mother, father, etc. (Scapegoating; someone else is to blame).

I have high expectations.

I expect you to act like a mature adult.  

Why are you acting this way? (I wish you were the perfect child).

I’m overwhelmed, tired, stressed, overworked, under-appreciated, etc.

Your needs are inconvenient for me. 

You’re making life hard for me. (Stress and blame).


The adult “tantrum” reactions are not helpful when trying to parent respectfully and grow kids who can learn to express their emotions in a healthy way.

How can we work with our own Baby Selves? Just as I counsel parents to provide practice opportunities for a child’s new behavior, parents need practice too. 

Here’s a way you can practice. These five steps are not meant to push big emotions down into denial or encourage inauthentic reactions. Instead, these steps can provide that hairline crack in the habitualized 3F system and allow a chance to choose a Mature Self response – instead of being run by the Baby Self’s knee-jerk reactions.

Receive the Trigger

Identify a trigger when you see it. Look inside at your triggering thoughts and emotions. The more we bring these into consciousness, the less chance we have of taking the child’s behavior personally.


Take a Parent Time-out. Sometimes, before you can react in a kind and positive way, YOU need a Timeout. You can say, “I feel angry. I love you too much to take it out on you. I’ll be back in 5 minutes.” Briefly remove yourself. Go into the bathroom or even stick your head in the refrigerator.


Take 5 deep breaths, one for each finger on your hand.


Use a pattern interrupt to get back to calm. This is a way to change your state. Some examples of a pattern interrupt might be to snap a rubber band on your wrist, sing the chorus of a favorite song, jump up and down, pet the dog, splash water on your face, or introduce something random, for no reason: “Do you want a banana?”


Instead of reacting with common Baby Self actions – like yelling, isolating the child, coercion, threats, or pleading – respond instead with connection. Offer a hug or some kind of touch. If that’s not wanted, continue with your day. When your child is calmer, find out the need and help the child meet it. If a limit needs to be enforced, be nearby to safely support your child and allow any big emotions that might come. 

Your respectful Mature Self response will do wonders to help a child with their future tantrums – and your own.

Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides local and distance parent coaching. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Connect with needs and opportunities from

Get immediate access to organizations and people in our area that need your help or can provide help during the Coronavirus crisis.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User