Speaking as someone who doesn’t have kids, I’m always impressed when an unflappable parent “just knows” what’s wrong when their child is throwing a tantrum.  

When dear little Johnny is jumping off sofas, running in circles on the floor, yelling and screaming and acting uncontrollably giddy and restless, I’m inclined to say “Oh no. There’s nothing we can do. We’re all screwed.” But Johnny’s mom usually goes, “He’s just tired. It’s past his bedtime. That’s why he’s acting this way.”

But why would being “overtired” cause restlessness? This idea has the sound of hard-earned parental wisdom, but on the surface, it makes no sense. If a child is truly exhausted, why would they be running around and shouting and demanding attention? Why would tiredness make them do lots of things that require lots of energy?

One explanation is that fatigue leads to weakened impulse control. When a kid is really tired, they can’t stop themselves from being rowdy. They also can’t focus on the step-by-step process of winding down and getting ready for bed.

This weakened-impulse-control explanation for “tired tantrums” makes a lot of sense, but speaking as an adult, there’s another consequence of tiredness that comes to mind. When we’re really tired, we don’t get the same pleasure, the same joy, the same satisfaction from our regular activities as we would get if we had more energy to put into them. And when we don’t experience the satisfaction that we’re accustomed to, we sense that something’s missing and we want it back.

I can try reading a book when I’m tired but it’s not going to do much for me. Still, I’ll struggle to read for a while and maybe get frustrated and then start browsing the internet in search of something – what? There’s music that would make me ecstatic if I had the energy to concentrate on it, but when I’m exhausted, the experience of listening to that music is going to be a letdown, so I’ll put the radio on and let the news wash over me. I’m not “acting up,” in a visible or obvious way, but still, I’m restlessly seeking stimulation beyond the point where I can be satisfied by it.

From a kid’s perspective, maybe they’d find it enjoyable to take a crayon and slowly draw a few lines on a blank piece of paper to make the outline of a house – if they had enough energy to stay focused on what they were drawing. But when they’re out of energy, it’s probably more frustrating than it is fun to try to draw those same lines. So what do they do instead? They start scribbling wildly in a desperate search for the kind of pleasure that they’re used to getting from drawing when they’re well-rested. Then they crumple up the page and throw it at someone.

Could it be that a child’s tantrum when they’re overtired is about looking for the satisfaction that they’re not experiencing anymore – looking for it by doing rowdier and rowdier things – and feeling angrier and more confused when they can’t get that satisfaction back?

As an adult I know this cycle plays out in my own life. When something isn’t as enjoyable as it once was – maybe because I’m too tired to enjoy it at the moment – I often see this as a problem, sometimes bordering on an emergency, and in my own way I start misbehaving – very subtly and inconspicuously misbehaving – in an attempt to reclaim what I’ve lost.

It could be that I’m taking a walk with my partner but we’re both too worn out at the moment to have a good conversation – it takes energy and alertness to “tune in” and be present for each other. But I want to have a good conversation – I’m expecting it – I’m used to it. And when it doesn’t happen, I’m frustrated. When the words that are spoken between us are not as satisfying as I want them to be, I might say something negative, I might raise a complaint, and now we’re starting to argue about something. 

That argument came from overtiredness. We didn’t realize or we couldn’t accept that we were too tired to have a good conversation. So we tried to have one, and it was disappointing, and the disappointment led to conflict.

I’ve started noticing those moments in my life where I feel a sense of letdown because an experience that’s usually great isn’t living up to that greatness. When this happens, I’ve started asking myself: how tired am I right now?

Like a kid, I might be very tired, and my tiredness might be creating the conditions for me to “act up.” If kids throw tantrums when they’re overtired, why should adults be immune to this dynamic? Perhaps I’m agitated because I’m not having the satisfying experiences I’m expecting to have, nor do I have the focus to handle my disappointment. I won’t be having those satisfying experiences again until I get some rest. Luckily, as an adult, once I’ve observed this, I can then orchestrate the getting of rest.

The lesson for adults:

When you’re pissed off that an experience isn’t as good as usual, maybe it’s past your bedtime. ■

Comments ༄