Adult tantrums can be a frightening and bewildering spectacle. Is it loss of control or an attempt to control – or a mixture of both?
We think of tantrums as being an unbridled fit of rage in response to someone else. But they can stem from fear as well as anger, and there are forms which take place even when the person is alone such as a home improver who smashes up a project he can’t fix or a writer who tears up his manuscript in fit of creative pique.
When a person throws a tantrum they are no longer attempting to solve a problem or conduct a meaningful interaction. The focus is on discharging the negative emotions a problem creates by venting them rather than dealing with the problem itself. People are likely to do this when they feel powerless and when they lack the means to make themselves feel better any other way. It sometimes comes under the heading of “poor emotional regulation”.
Emotional regulation is not the same as hiding or suppressing feelings like the proverbial “stiff upper lip”. It’s the ability to modify how we actually feel on the inside. When we give ourselves a pep talk, look on the bright side or count to ten when we’re angry, we’re using emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation is not instinctive; it’s a learned skill. We begin to acquire it around the age of two when we can move about on our own and start to develop a sense of independence. Not only can we toddle around by ourselves, we can reach for the cookie jar and start to communicate. But just as we’re discovering all of the wonderful things we can do, larger folk step in to tell us that we can’t. The result is an almost unbearable frustration and we’ll do anything to try and get rid of this awful feeling – scream, cry, rage, hit out or dig our heels in. This is a tantrum.
Some people may be more sensitive to negative states from the start, but after that the ability to tolerate frustration depends on how these early conflicts are managed. For things to go well, parents should be able to provide both appropriate discipline and comfort. If parents are firm and consistent in delivering discipline, the child is exposed to frustration and learns that it’s bearable after all. Children also realize that they can’t rely on changing what’s happening on the outside to stop feeling bad; they have to find some inner resources.
But children also need to know how to deal with these feelings. When we comfort a child, give them encouragement or reassurance, we’re not just making them feel better at the time. We’re also showing them how it’s done. Over time a child will learn or “internalize” these soothing techniques and be able to use them on his own. The ability to “self-soothe” is an essential part of emotional regulation.
Adults who throw tantrums have often missed some of these important experiences in their early years. The discipline they received may have been too flexible and so the only way they know to deal with frustration is getting the other person to back down. At the other extreme, the discipline may have been so harsh or arbitrary it was more than their young resources could handle. But perhaps more significant would be the lack of positive models of emotional regulation. Parents or guardians who are unable to comfort themselves, are reluctant to soothe or reassure their children or who also release tension through angry outbursts may not pass on the necessary skills.
To the question of whether this is an attempt to control or a loss of control, the answer would probably be that it’s both. The tantrums may work to control other people from time to time, but feeling unequipped to manage frustration any other way is dis-empowering. Adults who throw tantrums are not always aware that there are ways of relieving tension apart from venting it or removing the obstacle. To step away from tantrums, they need to realize that they’re more resourceful and more resilient than they think.