When Adults have Tantrums

So you’re meandering through your typical day when, wham, the yelling starts. Seemingly out of nowhere you are rocked with the screams of another human being. Chances are, you either have an escalated customer service call, or a toddler. I have both.

Even if you don’t have a child, I’m sure you have witnessed a tantrum because they can, and will, happen anywhere, for any reason. Kyle is only a year and a half old and already he has thrown a fit because:

  • His brothers hockey helmet was too big for him
  • I gave him grapes
  • I wouldn’t let him touch the inside of the hot oven
  • I said “let’s go inside”

Unfortunately this behaviour is not new to me; I have a 9 year old stepson, and I work in customer service. Although an adult tantrum tends to begin for more logical reasons than wanting to burn themselves, they generally aren’t that different. In fact, I have come to realize that both situations can be handled effectively using the same tactics, and a shit ton of patience.

Both adults and children pre tantrum, struggle with communication. Toddlers try to communicate but we often don’t “get it” and adults has suffered a miscommunication somewhere along the line, directly or indirectly. When these issues with communication are not dealt with to their satisfaction a tantrum may ensue. At this point, they do not actually want you to solve their problem. Don’t believe me? Think about the last time you saw a super meltdown in the supermarket.

Enter a child and parent down the dreaded cereal aisle. Watch as the child calmly asks for the coveted sugar cereal and how the parent wearily denies them. Suddenly, the child is on the floor, limbs flailing and lungs wailing. The parent is embarrassed and quickly tries to get the child off the ground. Ever tried picking up thirty pounds of rage? They attempt reasoning with their little spitfire but nothing works. Eventually, and against their better judgement, the cereal box comes off the shelf and is offered to the child in exchange for their dignity. But to their shock and dismay, this doesn’t work either.

Why? The child wanted the cereal and is now being offered exactly what they wanted. Once a tantrum has begun, they can no longer see clearly, all logic and reason are gone. What they actually want is to be heard, understood and sympathized with. Here is how you can do that:

  • Your first response to a tantrum is unfortunately, to listen to it. Let them scream in the middle of the mall, hold the phone away from your ear if you must, but listen. Figure out as quickly as possible what has made them so upset. Toddlers and angry customers do not feel respected. The fastest way to earn that respect is to actively listen to them. This means completely focusing on what they are saying, not thinking about what you are going to say next.
  • Show them that you understand. Echo back what they have said to you in different words. Keep it short and simple. The brain of someone mid tantrum cannot grasp complex thoughts. The delivery here is important too. As child psychologist and author, Harvey Karp, explains, you need to match their intensity in order to gain their attention, then slowly and calmly talk them down with you. An understanding response to a toddler may sound something like “you want! You want that balloon back. You are sad it sailed away”. To a customer you may say, “Wow, you sound really frustrated and angry. Angry that this didn’t go as planned”. For more help with how and what to say, pick up Karp’s. “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”.
  • Listen again. Give them a chance to calm themselves and explain more. Encourage vocalizing their feelings by asking questions such as, “how did that make you feel?” They more they feel listened to, the more calm they will become. If they do not, repeat the last step more intensely.
  • By now they are ready to deal with the actual problem. Qualify their feelings and attempt to rectify the issue. “I’m sorry you are going through this. I completely understand where you are coming from, this would have me upset two. Here’s what we can do to help….” Sometimes, like in the case of the fly away balloon there’s no solving the issue and sometimes it’s better not to solve it, like in the cereal situation. But we can still try and make them feel better. “Here’s a big hug, money off your next purchase, another balloon next time, a report filed with a supervisor.” Finally, if all else fails, distract them. “Have you heard about our sale? Look, a firetruck!”

You should be able to go about your day now, not worrying about when the next bomb is going to go off, unless of course, you decide to offer your toddler grapes.

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