How To Handle Adult Temper Tantrums
One psychoanalyst has a strategy to stop adult temper tantrums in their tracks
I’ve seen a lot of temper tantrums in my life.
Only a small portion of them have actually come from toddlers— the majority of these outbursts have actually been by adult friends or relatives.
When we’re faced with an adult tantrum, we don’t always know what to do. Like an overwhelmed parent, our first instinct is to calm the person down and give them whatever it is they need to stop screaming. However, this may not be the smart move — doing so only encourages the tantrum-thrower to repeat this behavior whenever they aren’t happy with us.
The good news is that one psychoanalyst has isolated a much better strategy that will stop an adult temper tantrum in its tracks — so the next time your spouse, friend, or relative has an outburst, you’ll be ready.
What does an adult temper tantrum look like?
Before we discuss how to stop them, we should first address what an adult temper tantrum looks like in comparison to a moment of frustration or anger. There is a very distinct difference: while we all go through temporary periods of anger — and may even say things we regret — an adult temper tantrum shows an inability to cope with negative emotions, and can even be used as a form of manipulation.
Here’s an example of an adult temper tantrum versus regular anger or frustration with a real-world situation:
You promised a close friend you’d attend their birthday party but at the last minute, you have to cancel because of a work obligation. Your friend is upset that you’re missing the event, and lets their frustrations be known:
“You seriously can’t come to my party? This is really important to me!”
Later on, after they’ve cooled down, your friend comes and apologizes for their harsh reaction. They may not like it, but they understand why you can’t come.
The above situation is an example of typical anger. Even if the friend’s initial reaction is selfish, they’re able to calm down and self-reflect later on. They realize their behavior was unnecessary and atone for it.
Now, if that same friend was to have an adult temper tantrum, it might look like this:
You can’t attend the birthday party because of a work obligation. When you explain this to your friend, they immediately seem to shut down. Clearly, the situation bothers them, but they refuse to address it. “No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” your friend says, but afterward, they’re closed off and seem to have a bad attitude.
For the next two weeks, your friend won’t answer your calls or texts. They’re active on social media, and the other members of your social group can’t see a problem. Clearly, your friend is only ignoring you.
Unable to contact them and afraid to lose the friendship, you finally decide to attend the birthday party — even if it means getting on the bad side of your boss and co-workers.
When you show up to the party, your friend immediately brightens up and begins talking to you again. They don’t address why they didn’t speak to you for two weeks, and things go back to normal.
In the latter situation, your friend didn’t just have a slight overreaction — they had a temper tantrum. They weren’t able to deal with the disappointment of not getting their way as well as being let down, so they chose to passive-aggressively punish you as a way to sate their anger.
Anybody who’s been on the receiving end of the silent treatment — especially when you have to guess what you did wrong — knows just how ruthlessly effective this form of emotional manipulation can be. It leaves you filled with guilt, and the longer it goes on, all you want to do is right your wrong — even if you didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.
You’ll also notice that, in the latter example, the metaphorical “you” caved in, and did the exact opposite of what you should actually do in this scenario. Yielding to the childish behavior of the friend and showing up to the party only reinforces the message that this is appropriate behavior. In the future, the friend will probably continue acting this way because they know it gets them what they want.
Keep in mind that this is only one example of how adult temper tantrums present. While some people may be as passive-aggressive as the fictional friend, other adults might scream or throw pity parties when they don’t get their way.
Ultimately, an adult tantrum happens when someone can’t cope with negative emotions or calm themselves down. According to psychoanalyst Roberta Satow, resilience and self-consoling are skills we learn in childhood. “Being able to calm and console yourself is a central part of being a resilient adult, yet many people are unable to do it,” she says.
The people who have not learned how to be resilient or self-console, are prone to throw adult tantrums and react the way we expect a child to. Psychologically, they don’t know any better.
How to stop an adult temper tantrum in its tracks
When people around us throw tantrums, the obvious answer seems to be that you should just cut those adult-babies out of your life. Toxic relationships aren’t worth it.
Unfortunately, we can’t always cut ties and walk away. If it’s a friend, sure, but what about a family member? What about a spouse? These are people deeply ingrained into our lives, and we may be forced to deal with their behavior for a long time — whether we want to or not.
What we don’t have to do is put up with it. Dr. Satow has developed a 5-step strategy for handling these emotional outbursts and fostering healthier relationships:
“The first rule in responding to an adult temper tantrum is that you have to stay calm and not get engaged in it,” Dr. Satow says. When someone else is crying, screaming or torturing you with silence, the temptation to get emotional is high. The adrenaline pulsing through our bodies is telling us to fix this, solve it — do whatever we need to do for it to stop.
This is is a mistake — the more emotional you are, the more you’re engaging with the tantrum-thrower. They want a response out of you, but you have to have enough self-control not to play their game.
Assess the potential danger of the situation
Before you go any farther, Dr. Satow urges people to protect themselves. “If the person having a tantrum is on drugs, alcohol, etc. or threatens physical violence, you have to leave the premises immediately, call 911 or both,” she says.
Explosive tantrums can get dangerous. Someone who’s screaming their head off is not thinking rationally, and you never want to put yourself in danger because of a childish tantrum.
If you suspect things will get violent, or know the individual is acting under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you should take Dr. Satow’s advice — get away fast, and alert the authorities if you need to.
This can be a difficult step to take — especially if the person throwing a tantrum is someone you care about — but putting your own physical safety at risk is not worth it.
Assuming the tantrum-thrower isn’t violent, the next step in the process is to empathize. To those of us who have the maturity not to act like children, this can be a hard thing to do when we know that the other person is the one acting inappropriately.
Keep in mind that, because tantrums often come from people who can’t self-console, they might feel ignored or unloved when they don’t get their way. Sometimes all it takes to stop a full-blown tantrum in its tracks is a little compassion.
For example: “I understand why you’re upset about me not coming to the party,” or, “I know you wanted me to hang out with you today, and I understand why you’re annoyed that I can’t.” It might not seem like much, but empathy and understanding can go a long way in making the other person feel safe and loved. Often, these phrases can forge the path to open dialogue and healthy discussion about feelings and boundaries.
Of course, some people are still stubborn enough that they’ll keep throwing a pity party or giving you the silent treatment no matter how understanding you appear. In this case, it’s time to give them some space or cut ties.
Set your boundaries
When someone acts like a child, you end up having to treat them like one. Most adults can recognize that cussing someone out or throwing a pity-party is not appropriate behavior — but tantrum-throwers are neither mature or rational.
Once you’ve demonstrated empathy and understanding — and feel like the other person is open to discussion — it’s time to talk about boundaries. Establishing acceptable and unacceptable behavior is a crucial step in any relationship.
Remember to stay calm during the conversation. If you start to get emotional, it’s likely that the other person will resort to the only way they know how to express their emotions — a tantrum.
Statements like, “I understand why you wanted me to come to your party, but ignoring me for two weeks as a form of punishment is not okay,” or, “I understand you wanted me to help you out around the house, but you cannot scream your head off and cuss me out.”
Right off the bat, you want to let them know what’s okay and what’s not. If you let the other person get away with their tantrum, they’ll continue to do it. Calling them out on their own childish antics can prevent it from happening again.
But, if the tantrums continue to repeat themselves despite your understanding and establishment of boundaries, there’s one final step to take.
Give them space or leave them behind
Tantrum-throwers feed off the attention you give them during their outbursts. When your friend punishes you with the silent treatment and you continually apologize and try to reach out, they only feel empowered. They’ve manipulated you into doing what they want.
The final solution is to give the tantrum-thrower some space. Don’t engage with their tantrums, but instead say that you’ll be ready to talk once they’ve calmed down. They will calm down.
If the other person, regardless of all your effort, still won’t stop their tantrums, it might be time to consider some permanent space. This is tricky when you’re dealing with family members or a roommate, but at the very least, you should find a way to spend minimal time around them.
Adult tantrums are messy. It’s not like trying to deal with a toddler who genuinely doesn’t understand the extent of their actions. Adults, even those who never learned resiliency or self-consoling skills, still have to take responsibility for their behavior. The bottom line here is that, even if you want to help the other person, you also have to prioritize your own safety and well-being first.