What To Do With An Adult Temper Tantrum

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What To Do With An Adult Temper Tantrum

July 10, 2009 Dealing with Difficult People Persuasion 4

AngryWe had fireworks this past weekend.  And that got me thinking about interpersonal fireworks, what you get when dealing with hotheads and twitchy people.  Have you ever seen someone really lose it?  I mean really lose it?  Pupils dilating and contracting, facial muscles twitching, the wind picking up around them filled with leaves and scraps of paper.  Not a pretty picture.

Do you know why people lose it?  People lose it when they don’t feel appreciated, plain and simple.

In my ‘Bringing Out The Best In People…Even At Their Worst’ training programs, I call this behavior the Human Grenade.  You know how it goes.  Perfectly normal one minute, then after a brief period of calm, BOOM!!!! and they start screaming things that don’t make much sense.  They lose control.  They lose their temper.  They lose it. In this post, I’m going to suggest that what works best to keep people from losing it.  But be warned. It takes some energy to prevent explosive behavior.  You have to find it in yourself to speak up, shine the light of your appreciative attention on someone whose behavior you find off-putting and awful.

Prevent People From Losing It.

Assuming you have a relationship with the individual, and there’s a bit of calm before the storm, it’s in your interest to find the pin on the grenade behavior and don’t pull it!   If you can find out what specific lack of attention triggers the explosion, you can act to prevent it from happening by providing that particular kind of attention. How to find it out?  You could simply come right out and ask them.

A good way to start is by stating your intent clearly. “I don’t want to fight with you ever again.”   Then inquire as to what made him or her so angry that “last time.”   “What made you so mad?”  or “What got under your skin? ”  Use clarifying questions to get the person to be specific. A useful question is “How did you know when to get angry?”

For example if the person says that, “I got mad because no one was listening,” do not try to convince them otherwise. You may know for a fact that people were listening, but based on what the person is saying, it is obvious that the signal that indicates people are listening was not received. Ask them in a friendly tone, “How would you know if people were listening?” The response may be, “When people don’t just sit there, when they respond!” You, of course will want to inquire, “What response would they give you when they are listening?”

Do not take anything for granted. Be specific. You can even get specific about what you can do to help the situation the next time it gets out of hand.

One of my clients, we’ll call her Denise,  had a boss who blew up frequently. Most of the time it had nothing to do with her. For a year she felt bad, because she didn’t know what to do to help him. Everything she said or did seemed to make the explosive episodes intensify. A day arrived when she just came right out and asked him, “How can I support you at those times when you lose your temper?” He casually said, “Just walk out and ignore me and do whatever you need to do.” She couldn’t believe it! After a year of driving herself crazy trying to help him, the only help he wanted was to be left alone. Proof that it pays to communicate!

You may learn that it isn’t you who is pulling their pin.  If the pin puller is someone else in the office, then one solution is training in team building, interpersonal communication, and conflict resolution.  (Give me a call, that kind of work is right up my alley!)

Or, their pin puller may be someone at home.  They get triggered, use their commute to work to get themselves all in a tizzy, and then the explosion happens at the office. In this case, drawing out the person by asking helpful questions may actually help the person to realize where the problem lives and the damage they are doing by bringing it with them to work.  In that case, getting some help developing their EQ (emotional intelligence) by reading or working with a coach (again something is right up my alley!) can make a big difference.  In the short term, the next question is, “What can I do to help next time this starts to happen?”

Whatever the cause of the explosion, if you’re willing to invest a little time every day in actively listening to the problems the person faces, and actively supporting this individual in talking instead of blowing up, you will slowly but surely have a positive impact, reducing the frequency and intensity of the negative behavior. At the very least, you will be one of the few people around whom they never lose it again.

I appreciate your comments.  If you appreciate my blogging about this, you can something now!

Be well,


4 Responses

  1. Anónimo says:

    Hi, the very last sentence you wrote is what prompts me to reply.
    I found your article because I am one of those human granades and was searching for ways to improve my emotional communication skills which are, obviously, lacking (not just the articles about self help but my skills as well).

    Could you write something on how to not take things personally, or how to, even when things are indeed personal, ignore them and go on?

    You’ll see, I have a long collection of places I have worked at because the moment I feel someone has something “against” me, backed up by their actions, I shortly, thereafter, resign.

    I am a very caring person and in order not to give a “hard” time to anyone i swallow things, dont speak about things that upset me. They build up and… I change jobs.

    How can I start to dare to speak about what upsets me? How can I not feel guilty about explaining how I feel and that someones words or actions hurt me? I hate admiting being hurt, and I hate crying in front of people… which is often what happens when I start telling my “agressor” how I feel… if I ever manage to do it!

    Yep, this has always been the point where I get stuck. Since I was a little girl. Any suggestions?

  2. Dr. K says:

    Dear Anónimo,
    Thanks for your comment, and thank you for your excellent idea. I will write about this! I’ll get something together and post in the next few weeks (already have my writing schedule until the end of the month.) Keep reading the blog, so you don’t miss it!

    For now, I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to seek understanding from people unlikely to give it. Better to find a safer place to express your feelings, like in a journal, or to a trusted friend, or in work with a coach, or to a counselor.

    A proper response will take some time, but I promise to talk about this in an upcoming post. Until then, thanks for visiting and keep coming back and commenting, you are most welcome (and safe to express yourself) here.

    Best wishes,

  3. Received via Feedburner:
    Full moon time and Ive checked diary to see if this is true. Male partner’s changes instantly – pupils go small, face changes, white with rage. Could be violent and has smashed things up. Rest of month is absolutely wonderful – is there a medical link to the moon’s cycle – is there a way to deal with this. I really need help and this is genuine. People have said yes violence does increase at this period – I just need some help. I look forward to your reply

    Sent via a FeedFlare link from a FeedBurner feed.

  4. Now, in answer to your question, I don’t believe that it has been proven that men have a monthly cycle, though there does exist some research, and there are a few indicators that there may be something akin to a monthly cycle. That said, men’s cycles, if they exist, are considerably more subtle and less disruptive than women’s monthly cycles. So I don’t think this really would account for the behavior you are witnessing. In fact, and I mean no disrespect, when I first read your question I thought, ‘maybe he’s a werewolf?’ because I could think of no more credible explanation for what you’ve witnessed in him.

    A study in 1929 that followed seventeen men to observe their moods over the course of a month showed that when men are at the low end of their cycle, they tend towards apathy and indifference, or making mountains out of mole hills, whereas at the peak of their cycles, they are more energized, weigh less, need less sleep, and overall have a greater sense of wellbeing.

    I have not observed this in myself.

    Best wishes


    P.S. If you’re concerned about violent behavior in a relationship (and I think, based on what you’ve written, that you should be more than a little concerned) here’s a link to a great resource. http://helpguide.org/mental/domestic_violence_abuse_types_signs_causes_effects.htm

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