Teens (And Adults) Have Pandemic Tantrums Too

by Jenny Michaelson
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Justin Paget/Getty

I live with my husband and two sons. My two boys are 12 and 15, well beyond the terrible twos, but for many months now I feel like I am back reliving the toddler years.

Two weeks ago, after a calm afternoon and pleasant evening, our older son lost it when we asked him to spend an evening with us, not online, playing video games with his friends. A normally calm kid, he was enraged at the tyranny of his dictatorial parents, forcing him to play a round of “Code Names!” The persecution he felt was palpable, and it felt like he was going to call Amnesty International to report us for crimes against humanity. I looked at my husband and we smiled knowingly, working hard to wipe the smirks off our face. We had seen this before, but it had been about 13 years, when he was in diapers, Thomas the Tank Engine in hand.

Last week it was our younger son’s turn. He lost it when he just couldn’t take another day of distance learning, with the microphone not working, and WiFi suddenly spotty. I think I saw steam coming out of his ears, cartoon style. And where did he learn those curse words? And laid out in proper order and emphasis! Is that what Discord is for?

And then it happened again, but this time it was my husband, and then it was me. My husband did not want to fix the broken thermostat and went on a rampage about house projects and the inequity of gender roles in home improvement. And as for me, between keeping my cool over the people who don’t wear a mask and the lady at the grocery store who got a little too close to reach over me to get her salsa, the dam finally broke when I found out we wouldn’t be able to have Thanksgiving with our extended family. I yelled at my husband, my boys and the barking dog…. I’m not sure what I said. Well I do but it’s not fit to print.

All four of us acted exactly the same: anger, followed by yelling, following by fuming and eventually embarrassment for these extreme reactions. If we were two-year-olds we would have been on the floor flailing our bodies in time with our outbursts.

What was happening? What had come over us? Had we all regressed back to the terrible twos? No, we hadn’t, we were just victims of what I call the Pandemic Tantrum and it’s not just for little ones. And we were all experiencing them again.

At first I felt terrible about the way we were all behaving. I know the pandemic has been hard, but are we really back to being toddlers? So I decided to do a little research. I found out that a tantrum is caused when the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) detects a threat and the hypothalamus (the hormone center of the brain) causes you to snap. Without the developed prefrontal cortex of an adult to self regulate, most young children, and sometimes teens, lose it, triggering emotional fireworks going off in the brain. Kids’ brains literally don’t have the capacity to calm down the triggering of the threat and as a result they snap, cue the tantrum.

After my office visit with Dr. Internet, I found an explanation for what’s going on with us. More than ever before, our lives are on edge. Since March, we have faced fears and disappointments that we never imagined. Under lockdown, we are faced with uncertainty of the vague threat of COVID, the poor quality of diplomacy exhibited by the President, political division, fire, poor air quality, no in-person school, hurricanes up and down the east coast, no summer camp, no certainty of when things will be back to normal, no traditional holidays — these are all squeezing any last semblance of “normal life” we once had. Where we all had developed the ability to temper our emotions and outbursts, our hypothalamus and amygdala are working overtime to monitor all these threats and react with fight or flight. At the same time, our prefrontal cortexes are done and have taken their own trip to Mexico, leaving us raw.

So here we are — naked and exposed, with our emotions tied to all the things right now that are out of control. What can we do? Short of getting out the old “What to Expect with a Two-Year Old” books somewhere stored with the baby clothes, I’ve taken a page from those old chestnuts of managing tantrums, and I’m applying them to all four of us.

As is often the case when we parent, I realized that I needed to soothe myself before I could help the kids. I have to take a breath and recognize that I am having a tantrum of my own. First, I let myself feel the anger, the frustration, the tyranny of it all. I have to let myself get mad. I try yelling into a pillow or in my car alone, or I can write (but not send) a scathing email. I know that resistance is futile, that I have to let myself feel the anger, give into the emotion. Let it out, so I can release and move on.

As I cool off, my prefrontal cortex reactivates and I can acknowledge that life is not even close to normal. I shared with my family what I learned about brain science and the new outbursts we were all experiencing. Together we came up with how to support each other when Hurricane Tantrum comes ashore. Here are the five things we all have agreed to do when someone else is melting down:

1. We try not to yell back.

2. We honor the feelings of anger and frustration.

3. We try not take outbursts personally.

4. We de-escalate things by staying calm.

5. We use humor, distraction and hugs whenever possible.

And we are encouraging ourselves to practice gratitude and compassion for ourselves and each other, even when we lose it.

And we acknowledged that we are under threat right now, that we will snap, and that more tantrums are inevitable. It’s actually comforting to know that our brains are working. In fact it’s probably the emotional release we all need under the circumstances.

That’s what is happening in my house and you know what … I’ve decided that it’s okay. With my new understanding of the brain science behind tantrums and my tantrum refresher course we are ready and able to ride them out until this pandemic is over and our brains can recalibrate as our lives get back to normal.

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