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How to curb an adult temper tantrum



Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/10/21

We expect our young children to tame theirs, but we need to look at our own emotional life and do the same.

We’ve all had that moment when something inside breaks. Disappointment, stress, or anger has been piling up and, suddenly, we can’t take it anymore. What follows is an adult temper tantrum. I’ve done it, I know. Maybe I’ll mutter that I don’t really care anyway and give up. I’ll claim nothing really matters. I’ll dissolve into quiet self-pity. I’ve seen other people lash out and say or do horrible things — words and actions they immediately regret and wish they could take back, but it’s too late.

When it comes to throwing temper tantrums, children get most of the blame. We emotionally mature, perfectly rational adults pretend we’ve put childish outbursts behind us and have overcome this bad habit once and for all. If children would just hurry and grow up and be more like adults, we muse, the world would be a calmer place.

My question, then, is why do I see adults throwing tantrums all the time? Why have I caught myself in the midst of them?

Now, I don’t mean that last week I banged my hands on the linoleum floor at the grocery store while screaming about wanting a candy bar at the check-out aisle, or that I refuse to put on my shoes when it’s time to go to church. I’ve left behind the habit of crying when someone else opens my yogurt package instead of letting me do it for myself. In this sense, no, adults don’t throw tantrums like those of young children — but we’d be lying if we claimed that we’ve left tantrums behind.

We rationalize our outbursts because the subject matter seems less trivial. We’re dealing with grown-up, serious, adult problems so, yes, from time to time we may emotionally explode. I assure you, however, that to a child the causes of their tantrums are not trivial. They’re responding to loss of control and feelings of helplessness. One way to regain control is to refuse to put on your shoes, or scream, or do both at once. Children are learning to deal with disappointment and manage unfulfilled desires. A pre-removed yogurt top may seem insignificant, but the emotions connected to it are serious, thus the intensity of the tantrum.

These emotions, if we don’t learn to manage them, follow us into adulthood. The intensity of the tantrum remains the same, even if the expression is different. An adult might yell, use profanity, throw objects, give the silent treatment, completely give up, or become excessively critical. What’s worse, we adults are much better at justifying our actions, so we claim the tantrum is acceptable because we’ve had a hard day, we’re just being honest, and other people shouldn’t judge us.

This starts a confrontational cycle in which the victim of the tantrum also loses the ability to be rational and responds in kind. Soon, a vicious fight is in the making, the kind that can destroy a relationship forever. I’ve seen families ripped apart by this negative feedback loop. I’ve seen friends stop speaking to each other forever.

If children can learn to curb their tantrums, so can we.

The first step is to admit that we lose control of our emotions from time to time. That’s okay. Stress does that. Living in denial won’t help, though.

Second, once we understand our emotions are leading us down a dark path, we need the discipline to get them under control — or at least let the rawness of the emotions subside. This means taking some alone time. I know a lot of people who believe the best way to argue is to start and not stop until it’s solved, no matter how long it takes or how intense it becomes. I don’t agree with this advice. It’s one thing to be proactive and not let an argument fester or become passive-aggressive, but it’s entirely another to subject each other to temper tantrums, thinking that unleashing the full force of our irrational frustration on another person is somehow helpful. It’s far more productive to take some space to regain calm. No one deserves to bear the brunt of another person’s tantrum.

Finally, setting boundaries is important. No matter how much inner turmoil a person is feeling, it isn’t okay to express it in certain ways. In an emotional furor, it’s all too easy to say or do things we don’t really mean. Those words can never be erased. They end up causing long-term damage, even after apologies are made. We also need to be careful not to transfer our frustration unfairly onto other people. Just because I had a stressful day at work it doesn’t mean I can be terrible to my wife and children when I get home.

We throw tantrums when we feel loss of control. No one understands, no one empathizes, it will never get better. It’s an action of despair. This past year, a lot of adults have thrown tantrums. It happens privately, in public, collectively, on social media — everywhere. We had a particularly challenging year, but we can’t rely on that excuse as a justification. Instead, standing at the precipice of this new year, rather than focusing on the negative and giving in to more tantrums, let’s resolve to take control of our own destiny, to empathize with and love each other, and take joy in all of the parts of our lives that are blessed.


Read more:
The Inuit’s secret parenting technique for dealing with temper tantrums

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