Applied Psychology

Adult Temper Tantrums: The Signs and What to Do

Nov 04, 2020 | By Saranne Durham
Adult Temper Tantrums: The Signs and What to Do

We can barely picture adult temper tantrums. When we think of a temper tantrum, generally a picture of a two-year-old lying on the floor, kicking and screaming comes to mind.

This is most likely because temper tantrums are a normal part of childhood development. They are usually an outburst of upset or frustration in children between the ages of one and four years old. As children learn how to express their feelings in a socially acceptable manner, as well as exercise better control over their emotions, they “grow out” of their temper tantrum inclined behaviours.

“Childhood temper tantrums are a normal part of development. Continuation into adulthood is considered problematic.”

Additionally, older children and adults will usually endeavour to control their emotions so as to maintain relationships with those around them. But what happens when they don’t?

Possible Causes of Adult Temper Tantrums

Some temper tantrums have medically related causes such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or are traits of personality disorders such Narcissism. Temper tantrums can be used as a mechanism to manipulate others, divert attention from another issue, cover up fear, shame or guilt with anger or get attention. Substance abuse can also result in temper tantrums. Regardless of the cause of an adult temper tantrum, it reflects badly on the person having it.

What does an Adult Temper Tantrum Look Like?

The reality is that adults can also have outbursts of uncontrolled emotions. Ultimately, an adult temper tantrum occurs when the person cannot cope with negative emotions or is unable to calm themselves down. Adult temper tantrums can be verbal, physical or both. For example, someone might shout, curse, slam doors, kick or throw objects around.

“Adult temper tantrums are the result of uncontrolled emotions.”

Adult temper tantrums are often tolerated despite them having a negative impact on those around them. Usually these outbursts are labelled “blowing off a little steam”, “being over stressed” or even “being pushed too far”. But labelling them with a more acceptable term doesn’t change the reality of what they are: Uncontrolled outbursts of upset or frustration commonly known as a temper tantrum.

What to do When Adults throw Temper Tantrums:

One of the key things to do when faced with an Adult Temper Tantrum is know the signs and recognise patterns that tend towards outbursts. Then when one sees that a tantrum is afoot, disengage from the situation.

5 Common signs of a temper tantrum build up are:

  1. Increased agitation and/or irritability
  2. Fast paced walking and/or pacing back and forth
  3. Aggressive gesturing with hands and head
  4. Tense face, shoulders and/or fisted hands
  5. Speaking quicker than usual

When Someone has a Temper Tantrum

You cannot reason with someone in the throes of a temper tantrum so rather:

  • Walk away
  • Distract yourself with something else while they calm down
  • Take deep breaths to calm yourself

If the tantrum is the result of drugs or alcohol or if they threaten physical violence, it is important to leave the premises. In extreme situations, where either the person who is having the temper tantrum is endangering themselves or they are endangering others, you may need to seek assistance from the police.

“When an adult has a temper tantrum, disengage from the situation until they calm down.”

After Someone has a Temper Tantrum

Adult temper tantrums should not be regarded as “normal” or “acceptable”. As it requires addressing a negative and socially unacceptable behaviour, its often easier to ignore the episode and just carry on with life. People who are confronted with someone who has temper tantrums sometime are disinclined to expose the behaviour for what it is because it is embarrassing for them and shameful for the person having the temper tantrums. However, this is essentially condoning the behaviour and could lead to an escalation rather than a resolution of the problem in the long run.

Once the person has calmed down, talk to them in a quiet, even tone.

5 Points to Navigate after an Adult Temper Tantrum:

  1. Point out that while they are allowed to feel angry or frustrated how they expressed their feelings was not appropriate or appreciated
  2. Ask them why they responded in the way that they did
  3. Find out how they would feel if your roles were reversed
  4. Ask them what they would do if you behaved like they did
  5. Ask them what they think can be done in future to curtail a similar outburst

Essentially, what you are attempting to do is highlight that, even from their own perspective, their behaviour is not acceptable and as such won’t be tolerated going forward. Since it is normal for everyone to experience frustration or upset, navigating a way forward to change this destructive dynamic should be the end goal of these discussions.

“Adult temper tantrums are not acceptable and should be addressed immediately.”

Follow through

However, often the person having the tantrum may not want to immediately acknowledge the issue. Therefore, during this type of conversation, it is also appropriate to outline what your response in future will be. Remember, as with issuing a warning to children, follow through on what you have said is imperative. It is also important to remind the person that you are confronting them about their behaviour because you care for them and want to spend time with them in the future.

You can gain more insight into the many facets of the human experience by studying psychology. SACAP offers a range of courses that can pave the way for a career in psychology, while developing skills that will prove valuable in a variety of other career paths. For more information, enquire now.

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