Adult Temper Tantrums

How to become a more resilient adult.

Posted May 15, 2018

Being able to calm and console yourself is a central part of being a resilient adult, yet many people are unable to do it. And parents who are not resilient have a difficult time building resilience in their children. For example, many parents give in to tantrums rather than helping the child get over them. Part of becoming a resilient adult is recognizing our temper tantrums. Usually adult temper tantrums aren’t physical —they don’t involve kicking toys or jumping up and down screaming. (Although sometimes they do!!)

My patient, Dan, has a temper tantrum every time he is frustrated or disappointed by a friend. He doesn’t hit his head against the wall or throw things, but he retreats and tells himself: “I don’t care, it doesn’t matter.” That is the adult version of kicking down a sand castle. When Dan is frustrated by a colleague at his law office, the hurt is quickly pushed aside. “I don’t care, I don’t want to be a lawyer anyway,” gets set in motion immediately. It immobilizes him. It has been hard for him to realize that’s a temper tantrum. His parents never taught him how to tolerate disappointment. It took years of psychoanalysis to make it clear that his depression was the result of decades of retreating into work or insisting that nothing matters-- and denying his hurt and disappontment.

Catherine has a different version of a temper tantrum every time she does not outperform all of her colleagues at work. She is very talented and often does outperform her colleagues—and she is rewarded for it with raises and bonuses. Nevertheless, she cannot tolerate any of her colleagues getting rewarded for their successes. She doesn’t throw things, but she often sits at her desk and cries. She tells herself: “I am a failure, I’m going to get fired.” Being second is not an option for Catherine—if she is not first, she is nothing.  Catherine tries to get other people to console her. She calls a friend or her boyfriend, but they cannot understand Catherine’s desperation since it is not based on adult reality. The attempt to get consolation is often unsatisfying and makes her feel worse. Catherine’s parents did not teach her that she could not be first in everything or how to console herself.

The empathic parent responds to the child by saying: “Yes, I understand why that hurt your feelings,” OR “Yes, I understand why you are disappointed.” You are not crazy, that hurts. That is a mirroring or witnessing function that calms the child. Then, when the child is calmer, the empathic parent might offer some reality testing. For example: “But, Pat’s parents are getting divorced so maybe he’s upset and that’s why he wasn’t nice to you.” In this way, parents can foster reality testing and the ability to console oneself. 

Gabriel Matula/Unsplash
Source: Gabriel Matula/Unsplash

The dialogue between parent and child gets internalized. Eventually the child is able to say to himself: "That wasn’t very nice what Pat said to me. It hurt. But his parents are getting divorced, so maybe he’s just upset."

For adults, these are not just skills one did not develop. They are lacunae in our sense of self. Learning the phrases, does not fill the hole. For those who did not have help developing this centered sense of self, working with a psychoanalyst can help create it. Developing a relationship in which hurts and disappointments play out and then are worked through over time, the patient internalizes the dialogue with the analyst and is finally able to develop an inner dialogue that is consoling and rooted in reality.

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