Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

President Donald Trump

Trump's Temper Tantrums

President Trump seems to find it hard to control his emotions.

A recent front-page article in The New York Times (“Clash on Camera as Trump Warns of a Shutdown”) and an Editorial Observer article inside (“The Chuck and Nancy and Donald Show”) discuss the televised outburst by Donald Trump during a meeting in the Oval Office with Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative and presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Displaying obvious frustration that he could not get his way over funding for a highly controversial border wall, the President blurted out, “You know what, you want me to put that on my — I’ll take it!” The President had an adult temper tantrum in front of the entire nation.

Temper tantrums are disruptive behaviors or emotional outbursts that involve physical acts or yelling. Children have temper tantrums in response to unmet needs or desires. Tantrums are especially common in young children or others who cannot express their needs in words or control their emotions when they are frustrated or disappointed.

Adult temper tantrums usually aren’t physical. But they might involve yelling nasty accusations, cursing, gesticulating violently, or abruptly ending a conversation and leaving the room. President Trump manifests many of these behaviors in press conferences—he has called journalists "stupid," "a loser," and "racist." For example, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump whether his embrace of “nationalism” has been emboldening for the white-nationalist movement. “That’s such a racist question,” Trump responded. When CNN's Abby Phillip asked if the president wanted acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker to "rein in" special counsel Robert Mueller, the President responded, "What a stupid question that is," and wagged his finger menacingly at Phillip. "What a stupid question." At another press conference, he pointed his finger at CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta and yelled, “You are fake news!”

During the meeting with Schumer and Pelosi there was no mistaking the President’s wild gesticulating and red-faced rage, reminiscent of a child during a temper tantrum. Nancy Pelosi understood that when she said afterward, “I was the Mom.”

Adult temper tantrums can be self-destructive; people often say or do things they regret later; but words can not be put back in the box once they are out. Sometimes an ethnic slur might slip out during a tantrum or a threat to quit a job or end a relationship. One of my patients threw a book at the wall. Another patient waved his cell phone during a temper tantrum and told me that he had evidence that I was a bad therapist because he had secretly taped our therapy sessions!

In this case, Senator Schumer’s grin during the President’s meltdown indicated that he realized the political capital of “Trump’s Shutdown” being televised, at the President’s request, to a national audience.

While it can be self-destructive for the average person to have adult temper tantrums, it can be destructive for the Republican party, or more important, our entire country if our President has them. The President can shut down the government and cause massive hardship: People who depend on government checks to buy food and pay their rent will not receive them. People who travel thousands of miles to see the national parks will find a “Closed” sign at the entrance. Firefighters risking their lives to fight wildfires in the West will see their pay withheld. And worse, what if the President orders bombs dropped while he is in the throes of a temper tantrum? What if he gets enraged and orders the armed forces he has sent to the border to open fire on the people seeking asylum?

For adults, temper tantrums reflect a lack of ability to deal with disappointment and frustration. But these are not just skills one did not develop. They are lacunae in a sense of self. Learning the phrases does not fill the hole. That is why giving the President a script does not work. As soon as someone asks the President a question he does not like or corrects one of his factual errors, or says “no” to him, he is at risk of a temper tantrum. Having a President who has temper tantrums is not just self-destructive, it is destructive to all of us.

More from Roberta Satow Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today