Mind & Body

Adults can throw temper tantrums and the pandemic made it worse

Even the most rational of us can have our emotions take over from time to time. But it’s more than ‘blowing off steam’: there could be an underlying issue.

You know that scene in Wedding Crashers where Isla Fisher’s character Gloria asks her father if the two guys she just met at her sister’s wedding can come to their family home and he says no? Then she proceeds to hold her breath, put her fingers in her ears and stomps loudly on the spot like a five-year-old who got told to put that chocolate bar back?

It may have been a funny moment in pop culture, but the fact is that, just like children, adults can throw temper tantrums, too, and if frequent, it could indicate an underlying issue.

“Much like when you see a child having a tantrum, an adult tantrum is when someone feels an overwhelming amount of negative emotion or emotions and are unable to cope with them or express them in socially appropriate ways,” says Lysn psychologist Rucha Lele.

Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.

“With the sudden change of lifestyle that has come with the global pandemic, there has been a drastic increase in the number of adults that are feeling overwhelmed, which is understandable when you think of the amount of changes that we have continually adapted to stay safe.”

There’s a key difference between adult and child temper tantrums, though: for a child, it’s because they haven’t yet developed the skills they need to communicate their thoughts and feelings. They are expected to have this skill by the time they reach adulthood, however.

“This does not at all mean that they are required to never be angry or enraged, but frequent temper tantrums may point towards an underlying mental health issue, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder or substance abuse,” says Lele.

“Unfortunately, we have become used to minimising such behaviours as ‘blowing off steam’ and such to make them more acceptable, which can sometimes prevent or block people from seeking the help they may need to learn important skills and strategies.”

If you witness someone having a temper tantrum in adulthood, or indeed if you’re experiencing one yourself, sometimes the safest thing you can do is simply walk away before you hurt anyone physically or emotionally.

“As hard as it may be, if someone else is having a temper tantrum, try not to take it personally or engage,” explains Lele.

“It is unlikely that they are able to have a rational discussion at this point.”

Breathwork can be really useful in controlling the heart and breath rate, and distractions can also be useful to try to get thoughts “unstuck”.

“Afterwards, it is important that you or the other person do not dismiss what had happened,” notes Lele.

It is important to address the issue, perhaps seeing if there were any warning signs, and then finding strategies to address the distress before it becomes a tantrum. It would be really helpful to engage with a mental health professional, for a protected space to learn new strategies.”

Tantrums can be preventable, too, if you or your loved one is prepared to work on it. Understanding the triggers is important to know when they might occur and even stop one in its tracks.

“Feeling anger is normal and therefore, you don’t need to squash this emotion away,” says Lele.

“It is important to learn the difference between showing anger and having a temper tantrum, and knowing when the early warning signs are starting to show.”

Rucha Lele is a psychologist at Lysn, a digital mental health company with world-class wellbeing technology that helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist while being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.