Tantrums: How our Tempers Tattle on Us

Temper tantrums aren’t just for two year olds, they’re a common practice among children and adults of all ages. In one significantly cartoonish example, in the year 2016 we have a United States Presidential Candidate that limits his tactical approach to an pretty fair split campaigning between throwing tantrums and telling outright lies. But, have no fear: there are ways of addressing this significant shortcoming, broken down into tidbits of advice here. But one of the most basic aspects you need to be aware of when dealing with someone throwing a tantrum is this:

Most people who throw tantrums love attention; they are loud because they want to be heard. The more attention they seek, the louder they will be. This is why a small sentence, like “I understand”, can easily calm the other person down. Keep in mind that understanding does not mean agreeing with the situation. You also should let them know that you are also hurt with their tantrums and that you could help them deal with the situation better.

Tantrums, otherwise known as temper tantrum, meltdowns, and hissy fits, are emotional outbursts, and can occur at any age. Especially in young children, they are a product of not having the tools or neural connections to deal with complex scenarios. In adults, they can be indicative of something more serious like malignant narcissism, defined by  Edith Weigert (1967) as a “regressive escape from frustration by distortion and denial of reality”, while Herbert Rosenfeld (1971) described it as “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized”.

In the rich and prominent these experiences are referred to as Acquired Situational Narcissism, something which “develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society. Fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.”

Children idolize their parents similarly, and little pitchers have big ears; kids learn most from what we don’t intend to teach them. And we have plenty of tools that we never seem to think they see. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the adoration of children for the adults in their lives would justify those adults to curate an inability to treat the children respectfully, but socially we participate in this strata/hierarchy of importance all the time; an affliction that continues because we allow it to.

We expect these in children, to some degree, but it has become normalized it in adults as well. 

“I’m not so sure adults are that far away from kids,” Deffenbacher adds, noting that tantrum-throwing adults often “go pounding through the house, hitting and throwing things.”

Not surprisingly, people with a low tolerance for frustration are more likely to throw a tantrum, experts say. Childhood experiences may play a role as well.

“Often adults who throw tantrums are those who were told growing up, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way,’ ” Sandler says. “They were never heard.”

And there’s some evidence that ill-tempered children become ill-tempered adults.

The journal Developmental Psychology reported in 1987 on a 30-year study of 200 people who threw temper tantrums as children. Those with severe childhood tantrums tended to have temper and mood problems later in life too. Men with tantrum histories were found to be more likely to have erratic work lives and to divorce their partners. Women tended to marry men with lower job status, to divorce and to be ill-tempered mothers.

Social media are an especially potent group of enabling mechanisms for adult temper tantrums; Facebook is a favorite utilized by those who are least socially adept at monitoring their own behavior. Those who are most prone to lash out and quick to be unnecessarily critical are the most likely to respond to “internet trolls” that we are, by now, so familiar with.

In everyone, tantrum-throwing can be a product of an environment that houses a pattern of bad behavior that has been learned. Rudeness that has gone unchecked. Plenty of adults make excuses for their own bad behavior, passing the buck for checking their own social responsibility. This establishes a normalcy for both the bad behavior of initially throwing a tantrum to get their own way, as well as the resulting negotiation and excuse-making to legitimize the continued behavior.

Why are we so ruthlessly critical of one another? Insecurity is at the root of most attacks, according to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., health psychologist and author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. “There are intense debates around so many aspects of parenting that mothers are constantly having to choose which side of an issue to come down on,” she explains. “Once we do, we take it personally when someone disagrees with us because it feels like a rejection of not just our choice but who we are and how we parent. As a result, we get defensive and want to lash out.”

There’s also the false perception that what happens online stays online. “The Internet gives us distance; people act as if it’s just a virtual space where everyone has multiple lives and there are no real consequences,” says Kalafatis. Of course, that distance is an illusion. The mom you make a snarky comment to on Facebook today may very well be standing next to you on the soccer sidelines tomorrow.

In fact, what we do online affects our offline behavior in ways we might never imagine. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that having a close network of friends on Facebook with whom you regularly share positive information about yourself (“I’m loving this new nail color!” or “I married the world’s best cook”) can prompt you to be less considerate when communicating with others in person.

“We call it the ‘licensing’ effect,” says Andrew T. Stephen, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. “The positive feedback you get from a tight-knit group on Facebook boosts your ego and leaves you feeling good about yourself and your life. And the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to ‘cut yourself some slack’ and devote fewer resources to self-monitoring and self-regulation.” Cue the mom who doesn’t bother to hold back her righteous opinions.

To find out what kind of coping skills you have to counteract your own stress, there is a questionnaire with an excellent list of comparative actions here.

Staying calm, reducing stress, and learning to communicate effectively seem to be our best weapons against this onslaught of rude reactions. We can only hope and express vigilance against the green-eyed monster of Tantrums.







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