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Psychoanalyst Janice Cohn Discusses Adult Temper Tantrums

(Column appeared on November 4, 2014, in The Montclair Times)

The Montclair Times frequently reports on altercations that occur during public meetings focusing on education and other matters. Are these angry outbursts (or more subtle temper tantrums) an inevitable part of human nature when there is passionate disagreement about important issues, or does this sometimes cross an unacceptable line?

More generally, when does righteous indignation, or just plain anger, morph into a full­fledged temper tantrum? And what, if anything, can bedone about it? Consider the following [fictional] example:

His voice had become hoarse and his face had taken on a distinctly purple hue. He looked exhausted, yet there was no sign that the yelling was about to stop. Logic and reason couldn't stop his diatribe, nor could offers of compromise. Finally, the adults around him were reduced to uttering dire threats. But nothing seemed to work.

The preceding vignette is a classic description of a full fledged temper tantrum. But in this case, the perpetrator of the tantrum was not 2 or 4 or even 10. He was a successful, 36­year­old business executive, who was intelligent, sensitive, and often utterly charming. But he was also a person who could not control his anger when confronted with disappointment, frustration or rejection.

While the thought of physical violence of any kind was repugnant to him, his verbal attacks, when his anger was aroused, were equally brutal. He usually didn't mean what he said during these times, and bitterly regretted his behavior once he calmed down, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. Afterward, his apologies were genuine and people responded to his sincerity. But still, the words he had shouted in anger lingered on, and could never be erased.

Temper tantrums can be defined as a desperate expression of rage against a perceived state of helplessness. The person experiencing a temper tantrum, whether age 2 or 60, strikes out toward others, whatever the eventual consequences, because doing something is better than tolerating the enormous pain of feeling helpless and impotent.

All of us get angry, and express that anger, sometimes. The difference between expressing anger and having a temper tantrum is that a bona fide tantrum is an excessive, irrational reaction to a situation, which the person cannot control.

Many of us have had the experience of trying to deal with an adult who is having a temper tantrum. It may be our boss, our lover, a relative or a neighbor. What can we do to help that person and protect ourselves from the brunt of the anger? Following are some suggestions:

  • Don't let yourself be bullied. When people are having a temper tantrum, their need to bully is in direct relation to their feelings of impotence.
    Giving in to people's unreasonable demands won't stop their temper tantrums.

  • Don't let yourself be defined by other people's difficulties with temper tantrums. Recognize that their behavior does not make you a victim, unless you allow that to happen.

  • Never permit yourself to be denigrated ­even in the interest of keeping the peace. Such behavior does not keep the peace, it simply encourages more denigration.

  • Make every effort to disengage yourself from an irrational argument. Logic will never prevail when you are dealing with someone in the midst of having a tantrum.

If you find that you are locked into a relationship with a person who has temper tantrums, it might be helpful to explore what role ­ if any ­ you might play in this scenario. For example:

  • Are you consciously or unconsciously provoking that person?

  • Are you deriving some kind of unconscious satisfaction from the person's behavior? Perhaps he or she is acting out your own frustrations and anger in a way you would not dare.

  • Are you so caught up in the role of "victim" that you are unable to clearly see all your options and alternatives when you are the target of a temper tantrum?

  • Do you set clear limits ­ and mean it ­ regarding what kind of actions and behavior you will not tolerate?

Adult temper tantrums are more pervasive than some might think. Most of us will have to deal with this issue at least occasionally. However, when the psychological fallout from temper tantrums causes a person chronic distress, a professional consultation will often be beneficial.

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