Leadership

The rise of adult tantrums and how they affect workplaces

Pollyanna Lenkic /

“Move down the train, make room for others”.

 “HEY MOVE ALONG, MOVE DOWN THE TRAIN!!!!”

This was the rumble like thunder before the lightning strike.

Recently, a fellow parent was sharing what happened on his recent morning commute while we were watching our children play tennis:

The train was packed, people moved along as much as they could, there was just no more room left’. The doors closed, the guy thumped the window in a very aggressive way, shouted and spat at the window, stunning those around him.”

Another day and sadly another demonstration of an adult exhibiting toddler tantrum behaviours and lashing out. We have all been on a train where people shout at fellow commuters to move along. Often there is space and people could move along, sometimes there is not. But regardless of whether there is space to move along or not, aggressive behaviour is never acceptable.

It’s upsetting, unsettling and can be frightening for those who are caught in the wake of an adult who is throwing the tantrum. For the person themselves, once the bolt of anger has dissipated they often feel remorse about the damage they have caused or sink further into the blame cycle to justify their unacceptable behaviour.

“Anger and lashing out is learnt behaviour possibly resulting from a background where anger was used to either control or resolve situations. This becomes normalised, accepted as a normal response,” explains Sandi Bookatz, a Melbourne-based counsellor with a background in trauma.

“It may be triggered from childhood and has continued as a habitual response into adulthood”, said Bookatz.

It seems commuter rage, not dissimilar to road rage, is becoming accepted as a regular occurrence in our lives.

If this is how many of us are starting their day, it’s not surprising that the behaviours are continued once they arrive at work.

Adult tantrums destroy safety and trust

It’s acceptable and part of development and learning for toddlers to throw tantrums, however, an adult needs to learn strategies to control their impulses. In the situation of the person who lashed out during his commute, he exhibited poor impulse control. With awareness, support and practice healthier habits and responses can replace the rage and lashing out. It takes awareness first, then commitment and practice.

“No one likes to be confronted with an angry person, you feel under threat and like you need to defend yourself,” says Bookatz. 

If faced with an adult who is throwing a tantrum, remove yourself from the situation if possible; it’s best not to try to deal with a person who is angry. They are unpredictable and not in a resourceful state to be reasoned with. It could also put you at risk.

If are not able to walk away, Bookatz recommends lowering your tone and suggesting that a discussion is had when situation is calmer.  

• Where possible do not interact with the angry person wait until the situation is calmer.

• Lower your tone.

• When calmer, discuss the impact on you and others using ‘I’ statements. They cannot argue with how you felt.

What if this person is you?

Firstly have some compassion for yourself. When you are are in a calmer state, reflect back over the incident and map out the steps:

• What happened?

• What was the feeling underneath the anger?

• Can you detect the moment where you decided to throw the tantrum? It was a choice.

Bookatz’s tips to support you are:

1. Picture a stop sign, this stops the amygdala hijack which Daniel Goleman described in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ;

2. Stop, count to 10, breathe (or focus on your breathing ), calm yourself down and then communicate from that place;

3. Physically take yourself out of a situation,;

4. Get some help from a professional counsellor.

Some additional suggestions

It might be useful to keep a journal. Record what happened as a timeline — what was the feeling underneath the anger? What was the need that you felt wasn’t being met?

Map out times in your life from 0 to  your current age. Record all of the explosions, all the tantrums and anger.  Answer the following questions:

• How old were you?

• What happened?

• How did you feel?

• What was the emotion underneath the anger?

Go back in time and reassure your younger self that he/she will be okay; give your younger self the love and guidance that they needed back then; and visualise them growing up with this, with your older current self by their side.

Once you have gained some insight from the above exercise I encourage you to seek a qualified practitioner who specialises in this work. It’s a worthy investment for you, your family and all the people you impact with your tantrums.

In her article, for Huffpost, ‘Sometimes Adults need tantrums too’, Andrea Wachter  writes:

“I have found that when people allow themselves to safely express their anger, sadness, shock and fear while simultaneously practicing compassionate self-care and seeking compassionate companionship, they can navigate the turbulent phases of life without hurting themselves or anyone else. They naturally experience more acceptance rather than stay stuck in denial, depression, anxiety, addiction or acting out.”

Identify and be responsible for your impact on others

Adult tantrums impact others. On the train that day there were young children on their way to childcare and children on their way to school. There were also adults who come with varying experiences in life. Maybe they have been a victim of rage and this person’s behaviour compounded this for them bringing back feelings of fear and lack of safety. For the children on the train, the behaviour may told them the world isn’t a safe place.  

How you set up your day and what this means for yourself and others

We create our day from the energy we bring, the mindset we are grounded in and the behaviours that support this. Last week this commuter went to work, he was smartly dressed in a suit. But he was angry and this has a physical and medical impact on his health and wellbeing.

Maybe he was a leader of people? His anger, entitlement, sense of outrage and blame of others would likely colour his day and most likely the day of those he interacts with. If he is a leader of people it is very possible that he will exert control over those who he feels he is able to. Maybe they are younger, or report to him? This is a horrible feeling for them and can have them feel powerless. Remember, your actions will leave a lasting legacy of the worst kind.

This leader could create dysfunction and division with those he interacts with, and when he doesn’t get what he feels he is entitled to, needs or wants, he will throw a tantrum.

Men and women are both engaging in adult tantrums; let’s not anesthetise ourselves or come to accept adult tantrums as okay.

Resources

• Access your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work — this is usually a confidential service for employees

• Go to your GP and ask for a referral to a practitioner

• Seek out more information and resources, such as this TED Talk “Making Good Men Great” by Gunter Swoboda.  

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences and how you have managed to navigate them.

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Pollyanna Lenkic

Pollyanna is a leading expert in building sustainable, high performing teams. Her leadership programs provide the framework and confidence to help leaders create leaders and a leadership culture.

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