Tantrums are associated with being childish. Phrases like “Don’t act like a child” or “Are you taking all your marbles and going home?” make it difficult for adults to admit that they tantrum. It is an immature reaction to frustration or disappointment and yet it is also a common reaction for many adults.
Not recognizing that you tantrum makes it very hard to communicate about sensitive situations. People who throw tantrums are often seen as difficult or overly sensitive people with a low tolerance for not getting things their way. So, other people either usually wait for the tantrum thrower to just wind down or fuel the fire by calling the behavior childish. This limited giving and getting of feedback is why the tantrum cycle continues into adulthood unchanged.
Unfortunately, frustration and disappointment are common themes during the holidays with family, friends, and colleagues. That is why there are so many “how to survive the holidays” and “what not to do at your office party” tip sheets. The good advice is often focused on not overeating or drinking and warnings to set “realistic expectations” and not attempt replicating a Hallmark Card or Channel moment at home.
The most important piece of information for a tantrum-free holiday is your own early warning system. The physical feelings right before a tantrum takes hold are very strong and can help you recognize that you are at a fork in the road – to tantrum or to choose another way of responding. Some people just go from calm to crazy, but usually if you throw tantrums there is a predictable wind up to the tantrum.
Before a tantrum I have shortness of breath and feel increased anxiety. I’ve learned to recognize these pre-tantrum signals and remind myself to “proceed with caution” since I am not at my best. With intention I can take a break, get a glass of water, or sometimes “act as if” I can handle it and keep going.
A client who is working on recognizing his pre-tantrum signals gets “hot” inside and feels the heat spreading. He cools down by breathing deeply and telling himself to “chill out.”
Another client is sensitive to being made fun of in a group and feels like she has been hit in the solar plexus by an off-the-cuff comment or joke. She would calm herself by eating sweets or drinking, literally swallowing her feelings. Escaping her feelings was only a temporary fix and delaying the tantrum made it even harder for her to remember the initial trigger. Choosing to stay with her uncomfortable feelings, rather than escaping them, has allowed her to use her feelings as a cue to check in with herself and not have a reaction that is bigger than the real or perceived insult.
How do I know these strategies work? People comment on how much easier it is to talk about and listen to topics that used to be off limits when they recognize and manage their tendency to tantrum. Believing in your own ability to make productive choices can make the difference between throwing a tantrum or being strategic in thought and action. Here is wishing you a tantrum-free holiday season!
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