Let's Talk About Your Adult Temper Tantrums
When we see toddlers have temper tantrums in line at the grocery store, we feel sympathetic for the parents trying to calm them down. We’re even quick to dismiss the behavior as the “terrible twos”—no big deal. But what about when it’s an adult that’s having the public meltdown? What about when it’s us—a grown person with a credit card! A family! A career!—boiling over, in front of everyone at the grocery store? That’s a different scenario.
While adult tantrums make for great stories (or videos—remember that viral Vine of the Apple Store lady?), we often don’t talk about how to deal with them—or where they come from. Author and psychiatrist Jeffery Smith, M.D., explains on his blog that adult tantrums happen when someone’s “inner child” acts out.
Adult tantrums happen when someone’s “inner child” acts out.
When we’re children, he explains, we have tantrums when our needs are unmet and we require an adult to help us out. When the adult doesn’t fix the problem (aka doesn’t buy the toy), a child’s emotions run high, and the anger bubbles over into an emotional freak out. Suddenly, Mom (or the caretaker) turns from their ally into a threat, and therefore all systems go into extreme reactive mode. A child feels like their entire self—their existence—is suddenly under attack.
“The child has no choice but to put up a life-and-death fight to get Mom to change her mind,” Smith writes. “The stakes are not simply the thing being fought over, but life itself. If the child loses the battle, then, like the gladiators of Rome, he or she will die.”
The hallmarks of a temper tantrum: the anger doesn’t dissipate, and the destructive behavior doesn’t stop even when it’s obviously dysfunctional, according to Smith.
And when adults have unmet needs—like, that cashier who won’t give them a free refill—they can fall back into this same behavior. “Adults can and do slip back into the mode of a child having a temper tantrum,” Smith writes. When we can’t get what we want, we can feel like we’re back in that same battle.
If your anger and frustration starts to bubble up inside, here’s what you can do to protect yourself from going off (and potentially going viral).
1. Predict Your Meltdown
If you know that there’s a certain behavior or activity that leads to your tantrums, predict it and avoid it. One example: If sitting in traffic makes your blood boil, give yourself a few minutes to meditate or calm down after your commute.
Robert G. Harrington, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, told RealSimple that people should remember the acronym HALT: hunger, agitated, lonely, or tired. These things commonly spark tantrums, no matter a person’s age. Recognize when you slip into a HALT state, and try and curb your tantrum. If you’re feeling hungry, for example, grab a snack before that hunger turns into hanger—it's a very real thing.
2. Try to Contain Your Rage
Let’s set the scene: You feel like raging at the store clerk for not giving you that discount you know you deserve. The anger is building, and you’re ready to yell, shout, or threaten them that you’re not leaving until something is resolved to your liking.
In a situation like this, Smith writes that you should try to contain your anger, especially if it’s directed at another person. “Destructiveness must be contained or it will continue to escalate,” he writes.
But calming down is easier said than done, and the decision to stop has to come from the individual themselves.
One way to control your anger: control your breathing. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking deep breaths, which will also help you take time to think before acting. Wait until you’re thinking clearly—and willing to let the other side be heard—before raising your voice or taking any kind of extreme action.
Wait until you’re thinking clearly—and willing to let the other side be heard—before raising your voice or taking any kind of extreme action.
The Mayo Clinic also recommends using “I” statements (“I feel like you’re not holding up your end of the deal”) rather than placing the blame on someone else (“You’re not holding up your end of the deal!”). You can also try to use humor to release tension, as long as you stay away from sarcasm.
If controlling your anger is something you struggle with on a daily basis, it’s worth reaching out to a professional who can help you come up with solutions specifically tailored to you. This is especially important if your anger frequently causes you to do things that hurt others or causes recurring regret.
3. Re-establish Empathy and Connection
When a child has a tantrum, the best thing a caretaker can do is comfort them, help them accept that, yes, they’ve lost their battle, but let them know they’re still loved and forgiven.
Smith writes this ideal outcome applies to adults as well. Once the destruction has settled, the tantrum-ee must “surrender," so to speak, and let themselves find comfort, whether that’s from another person or self-soothing. “The person having the tantrum must feel needy enough and safe enough to allow the self to be soothed,” Smith says.
When dealing with someone in a tantrum state, let them know that, while their actions weren’t acceptable, they can be forgiven. Smith says this is how a tantrum-ee can accept their mistake—but know they can still love themselves.
With these tips in mind, the next time you feel like you could fling a bagel at an Einstein's Bagel employee, hopefully you can reign it back in and reconsider it.