Lorene, a mother of two young children, is no stranger to temper tantrums. So the screaming, stomping, ranting and raving weren’t a surprise to her. But the person throwing the fit was. It wasn’t one of her kids, but her husband who was having a meltdown. Overwhelmed with multitasking—hooking up the Wii, new cable box, Netflix and DVR player, Lorene’s husband was already feeling anxious when his wife asked him a simple question, triggering an angry outburst.
Diane remembers a time when she threw a grown up hissy fit in public. Frustrated with a friend and overcome with anger, she went into a ten minute rage—letting out blood curdling screams and throwing drinking glasses out the front door. According to Diane, “As I was throwing them I felt guilty, knowing it was dangerous. But I was so angry that doing something that bad felt good.” The fit fizzled out when a neighbor, hearing the ruckus, yelled for her to stop, snapping Diane out of her rage. Both Lorene and Diane agreed to share their embarrassing stories only if their last names weren’t used.
We’ve all heard of temper tantrums in children, but what about when it’s an adult ‘losing it’—a spouse, friend or family member? When is anger actually something more? And is there anything we can do to help defuse the situation?
Heidi Phair, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Gig Harbor, Washington says she has a five pronged approach when it comes to assessing anger issues:
- Medical: Is an underlying medical condition the root of the anger? For example certain types of dementia, like Alzheimer’s, can cause personality changes and outbursts.
- Mental Health: Is the person dealing with mental health issues like depression? Symptoms of depression can include irritability, anger and mood swings. So can Bi-polar Depression, Schizophrenia and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and many other mental health conditions.
- Alcohol and Drug Issues: Is the person abusing alcohol or drugs? Alcohol and many illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine can cause people to be stimulated, unpredictable and agitated.
- Past Experiences: Did the person grow up in a home witnessing anger all the time and/or being physically or verbally abused? Phair says there isn’t necessarily a genetic component for anger but it can be a learned behavioral response.
- HALT: Lastly, she uses the HALT acronym to assess anger. Is the person:
H – Hungry
A – Agitated about something unrelated
L – Lonely, feeling disconnected from others and acting out in anger
T – Tired
Many of the reasons above require professional help, but some require awareness. According to Phair, “Regardless of the reason(s) the temper tantrum is occurring it is unacceptable behavior. We have freedom of speech but no one deserves to be verbally abused. “ She adds-- “It is OK to be mad but not OK to be mean. This is a significant point I work on with my clients facing these kinds of problems.”
So how do you handle anger issues that don’t require professional intervention?
Phair states, “Sometimes anger is kept inward and comes out in outbursts, like a lid on a pot of boiling water. “ Some ways she suggests to relieve the pressure if the angry person is you: Gain awareness of the initial feelings in your body when your anger is escalating and get away from the situation to give yourself a chance to calm down. Writing about your feelings in a journal, exercising and venting in a safe, supportive venue are all healthy ways to deal with anger—before the pot boils over.
And when a friend or family member has an adult tantrum in public—how can we help defuse the situation? Phair recommends:
- Validate the person’s emotions -- “I understand that you are upset” --and calmly state that their response is unacceptable.
- Later, when the person is calm, state your feelings about the way the person treats others when he or she is upset, “I understand you were frustrated but yelling and swearing aren’t acceptable.”
- Brainstorm ways the situation could have been handled differently.
Says Phair, “I think it’s vital to be clear about one’s own boundaries of what is acceptable and what one will not tolerate. Compassion, kindness and empathy are very important.”
Disclaimer: This article does not address verbal abuse issues. If you suspect verbal abuse is occurring, seek professional help. Heidi Phair, MA LMFT contributed background information for this article.