Psychology Adult Temper Tantrums

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Sometimes it just feels good to have an adult temper tantrum, stomping the feet and kvetching about the unfairness of it all. But  problematic adult temper tantrums go farther. They are usually defined as a sudden, unexpected display of anger and rage; or a display of anger or rage that is excessive in relation to the triggering event. Adult temper tantrums are widely varied. When the grinning car mechanic who just broke a key of in the ignition, lies and refuses to compensate for the damage, or when the office bully has gone too far, an adult will take the matter to the level of seriousness that expresses unrequited rage without violence or harm.

But healthy adults will resolve to collect evidence, then walk away and then sue, file complaints, call security or the police, or handle the matter using legal and socially acceptable measures. In all reality, the witnesses and subjects of the temper tantrum are well aware of what triggered the outburst, but pretend to not know, or to be shocked and surprised when their own behavior gets unexpected results.

When considering the odd, normal adult temper tantrum, it helps to understand that there are individuals who repeatedly and consistently get gratification from triggering upset and anger in others. It helps to get to the truth of the matter when a normally calm and reasonable person erupts in anger, especially when the other individual has a history of triggering anger in others.

There is a social adjustment disorder called "explosive disorder", which calls for certain conditions to be met before it is diagnosed.The problem is when the temper is repetitive and involves behavior that is abusive, disturbs the peace, is physically violent or is illegal.  The problem is also when the temper event is from a minor or petty cause, happens much later than any triggering event, or is "out of nowhere".  In those cases, the individual is compelled to resolve tension or to get gratification through repeated explosive episodes that result in damage to property or assaults on individuals.

The individual may have tried and failed to stop the behavior, because it involves short term gratification at the expense of long term damage. Cognitive, drug, and behavioral therapy are effective in controlling this disorder, which usually manifests in early childhood and can most effectively be treated then.

In other adult temper tantrums where there is no explosive disorder, there may be cognitive or substance abuse issues where yelling, screaming, throwing minor things or behaving in a theatrical manner result from legitimate grievances, but there is not enough self control to use the normal and socially acceptable ways of resolving a dispute, insult or matter. In some cases, the individual is socialized by their family into believing that such behavior is effective in resolving disputes or in expressing anger.

This can be done by yelling and screaming, by engaging in a scorched earth lawsuit,  or by starting protests, or through a series of well managed and highly publicized grievances that does not stop until there is a financial or other type of capitulation and settlement.

One effectivity of adult temper tantruming that used to be taught in business school involved dealing with people who are being rude, out of control and inattentive during a meeting. The method is to slam the hand down on the conference table and say loudly: 'I was speaking and I want your full attention!" This is an effective form of theatrical adult temper tantrum where there is no true rage or out of control behavior, and it used to establish control of multiple people who are getting out of hand and are not taking the leader or speaker seriously.

Problematic adult temper tantrums are well documented in law enforcement, where officers are filmed in the process of behaving far more aggressively and abusively than the situation requires. In high stress jobs, of course there is going to be the odd over reaction, but some of them result in serious harm to others and an investigation of the individual for fitness for duty.

Putting aside the true psychological disorder of explosive disorder, most repetitive and non violent adult temper tantrums come from a learned way of reacting to stress, problems, disappointment or insult.

The odd, unexpected adult temper tantrum can come from repetitive and determined insult or excessive abuse, combined with a belief that there are no other options in resolving a problem.

The normal adult temper tantrum simply means that things have gone too far and that someone needs a time out to think about more acceptable measures.

The effective adult temper tantrum is "theatre" that is staged to establish or to re-establish control of an out of control situation.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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