Kicking and Screaming: When Grown Ups Throw Tantrums

If you have children, or you’ve been in a grocery store within earshot of a child shopping too close to nap time, you’ve no doubt experienced a tantrum. A tantrum is that universal wailing and gnashing of teeth that we’ve all come to accept as a natural part of a small child learning to be independent, to speak her mind, and to communicate as best she can, given her limited verbal reasoning skills.

Mothers who pass by another mother whose child is in the middle of a public tantrum give a knowing look and a fist bump of solidarity. We mothers even regale one another with stories of our kids’ most epic tantrums, complete with re-enactments of the kicking and screaming. While these tantrums can be some of the darkest days of early childhood parenting, we take solace in the knowledge that these tantrums are a phase.

Soon enough, the children who once threw themselves on the floor will someday grow into more rational, even-tempered adults who take responsibility for their actions.

Most do.

Unless they don’t.

Jessi Simon baby pic
Photo credit: Jessi Simon

Recently I’ve been thinking about the adults who never quite move past the kicking and screaming method of coping with difficult situations. My husband and I were at our favorite coffee shop last week when a woman in her early 20s came raging into the shop and started screaming at the baristas because her car had been towed. This coffee shop lot has large signs with clear messages about what happens if you leave your car and are not in the coffee shop. Phrases like, “Private Parking!” “Customers Only!” “You will be towed if you are not in the store!” “$150 Fine!” make it pretty clear that you should only park your car while you are physically in the coffee shop.

She could. not. believe it. Not satisfied with the employee’s explanation of the parking policy and the number to the towing company, this woman proceeded to pull out her cell phone and speed-dial her mother. Of course I was eavesdropping, because who wouldn’t? I gave her a compassionate smile but she would have none of it. The call to her mother led to a call to the family’s lawyer.

She simply would not accept that she had done something wrong, that the rules applied to her. Kicking and screaming.

I’ve also encountered versions of coffee shop girl in other areas of my life, albeit less dramatic. I’m sure you have examples of this, too. Some of it can be chalked up to having a bad day or having other circumstances that make these small injustices the last straw. But I have a suspicion that some never learned how to stop kicking and screaming and start taking the reflective time out. And if they never learned it, that means that someone didn’t teach them.

I remember rallying alongside my classmates against our Spanish teacher in 10th grade. We didn’t like her because she had a German accent and was “hard to understand.” More than likely, we really just didn’t like Spanish, but blaming her was easier than spending extra time conjugating verbs. We made life hard for her in the classroom. And then we all complained to our parents. Some of my classmates’ parents listened and complained on behalf of their kids to the principal.

My parents didn’t talk to the principal. Instead, they asked me why I couldn’t understand her. Was I listening? Was I asking questions if I couldn’t understand? Had I (gasp!) addressed the issue with her personally? And then they told me to apologize to her for not giving her the benefit of the doubt. Wait, what? I remember being mortified, having to stay after class and apologize for my behavior. Now I realize they just weren’t going to tolerate my kicking and screaming. They knew it would not serve me well later on, when I could no longer run home to complain.

Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, thank you for the time-outs and for making me “use my words” before that was even a thing.

In the years since high school, I made mistakes and practiced some blame-shifting behavior, but it was always a symptom of making bad choices overall and never because I didn’t know any better. Today, I still have my share of grown-up tantrums, but they are mostly in the privacy of my own home. Like when my cable company is fighting with my local ABC affiliate and it means I cannot watch The Oscars with the rest of the country. Or Scandal. Or Gray’s Anatomy. Or the most dramatic rose ceremony ever! Because of my mom and dad, I learned to take responsibility and to always, always treat others with respect, even when they tell me what I don’t want to hear. (I’m talking to you, DirecTV customer service.)

Life isn’t fair, but to kick and scream just makes it unpleasant for everyone around us and doesn’t serve us well in the long run. Save your tantrums for life’s real injustices. Today my 6-year-old has (mostly) moved past the kicking and screaming phase and on to verbal tantrums. When she makes a mistake or drops the ball or doesn’t earn first place, am I going to run to her defense and blame the teacher/employer/coach/friend or ask her, “What are you going to do next?”

It’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to look for those moments when, like my parents did for me, I can teach her about action and consequence, to clean up her own mess, and that to fail or make a mistake is part of growing up and most certainly no reason to throw herself on the ground.


Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.


  1. Oh, how I love this! I’ve been on the receiving end of the coffee shop girl tantrum MANY times. I often wonder what the tantrum will look like when the obstacle is “real.”


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