It can be tempting to label this behavior as "crazy," and while some adult temper tantrums are due to mental health struggles (which do not, for the record, make you or anyone else "crazy"), others are simply a hazard of being alive. Stress, unsurprisingly, can be a trigger, which is why the pandemic may have made temper tantrums more prevalent than they were before.
What are adult temper tantrums?
Mostly, tantrums are categorized as emotional outbursts involving physical and emotional displays of anger, frustration, or displeasure, says Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. "Because it’s not as socially acceptable for adults to bang on the floor and scream at the top of their lungs when they are upset, adult temper tantrums are usually seen through ineffective interpersonal engagement, struggles to regulate emotional experiences, and challenges with communicating feelings," adds Meghan Watson, MA, RP, a psychotherapist in Toronto.
An adult temper tantrum is not otherwise all that different from those more commonly thrown by toddlers. "Both involve big emotions, difficulty communicating those emotions, and interpersonal distress," says Watson.
Adults may actually use temper tantrums more consciously to achieve a goal.
The difference, however, is that tantrums are "developmentally appropriate" in small children because they haven't yet learned skills to regulate and communicate their emotions. Adults, on the other hand, technically should know and do better. Additionally, adds Dr. Manly, adults may actually use temper tantrums more consciously to achieve a goal. (In other words, they can be manipulative.)
Why do adult temper tantrums happen?
Typically, both experts explain, such outbursts in adults stem from deficiencies in their upbringings. "Many adults who don’t get that socio-emotional learning as children and adolescents often resort to unhelpful and emotionally dysregulating ways of communicating themselves, which is what we know as the 'adult temper tantrum,'" says Watson.
And if a child is raised in an environment in which dramatic emotional outbursts were permitted, fostered, or modeled, that child will be more prone to temper tantrums in adulthood than would, say, a child reared in a home where self-regulation was prized, says Dr. Manly. Factors such as gender and cultural norms can play a role in the development of a propensity towards tantrums, too.
Sometimes, this behavior can be indicative of serious mental health disorders. "You might notice that people who engage more regularly in temper tantrums as a way to communicate might struggle with character traits seen in some personality disorders, as well as mood disorders like bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety," Watson explains. More commonly, however, it simply points to a lack of self-development around emotional regulation, Dr. Manly says.
What triggers adult temper tantrums?
Stressful events—big and small—can trigger a tantrum, which is why you may have seen (or thrown) more of them in the past year than ever before. "Given the chronic stress experienced during the pandemic, many people have experienced increased anger, frustration, and irritation," says Dr. Manly. And Watson adds that being stuck indoors in too-close quarters with partners or roommates for the past year hasn't helped. "Most people need time and space alone to decompress and check in with themselves," she says. "Less time alone may prevent some from being mindful of their emotions and regulating in time to prevent a temper tantrum."
There's some hard evidence of this exacerbation, too. "During the pandemic, research indicates that there has been a surge in inappropriate displays of anger, resulting in child abuse and domestic violence," Dr. Manly says. "When an adult has a temper tantrum and directs anger and frustration outward onto others, the results can be devastating."
What can you do about adult temper tantrums?
If you find yourself in a situation wherein another person is experiencing an emotional outburst, both pros say the best thing you can do is to try not to react. "It’s important not to judge the adult who is having the temper tantrum; at the same time, it’s vital that we don’t reinforce the negative behavior by giving it attention," Dr. Manly explains. "It’s important to find a balance between having empathy for the dysregulated adult and not giving in to the dramatic, overpowering plea for attention and control."
Conflict can be resolved, even when someone is exploding.
She and Watson both recommend trying to diffuse the situation instead by listening and reflecting rather than reacting. "In fact, saying something such as, 'I see that you are very upset. I’m here when you are ready to talk,' can be the most effective means of stabilizing the situation," says Dr. Manly. Conflict can be resolved, even when someone is exploding—if the other person remains regulated, says Watson.
If you don't feel as though you can remain calm in the face of a tantrum, Dr. Manly advises leaving the situation by taking your own time-out. "In such a situation, you might say, 'I understand that you’re very upset. I feel powerless to help, but I do need to take care of myself right now. I’m going to take a short walk. When you are in a calmer place, I’m happy to talk with you about what’s going on', ” she advises. If the situation feels threatening, however, Dr. Manly advises calling 911 immediately.
Once the other person has calmed down, Watson says to look for "signs of safety." These may include slower breathing, sitting down, drinking water, or eating. Only then is it a good time to share how their tantrum made you feel. "Use 'I' statements and be prepared to take breaks if needed," she says. "Not everything can be solved in a day."
How can I stop having adult temper tantrums?
If you're the one prone to relationship-destabilizing tantrums, you might find it encouraging to know that they're not actually as out of your control as they may seem. Since they stem from a lack of the ability to regulate emotions, doing the work to develop those skills can help. "You can prevent yourself from having an adult temper tantrum by learning to be responsible for your own emotional regulation," says Dr. Manly. "This often involves engaging in self-work including taking time-outs, using exercise or journaling as an emotional outlet, seeing a therapist, or attending an anger management group. The degree of support needed depends on the seriousness of the temper tantrum issue and the underlying causes."
Building awareness around your triggers is a specifically effective means for preventing future outbursts, adds Watson. And before you say or do something inflammatory or provocative, she advises utilizing the acronym THINK by asking yourself if what you want to say is Thoughtful, Helpful, Important, Necessary, and/or Kind.
Watson also advises ensuring your needs are attended to, so you'll want to notice and address if you're hungry, lonely, or are otherwise in lack of something that helps you feel regulated. "Often, babies and toddlers fuss when they feel physical and emotional discomfort," she says. "Adults are no different, except that we can meet our own needs. Try to do so without judgment, shame, or resentment. You deserve space to feel."
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