By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Tantrums are usually associated with children and are often considered unpleasant and unwanted. But what if we could welcome and accept tantrums the same way we do stormy days? And what if tantrums weren’t just for kids? Couldn’t we all use a healthy, conscious, grown-up tantrum sometimes?
Our emotions appear like weather patterns. We just get to choose whether we judge them, numb them, lash them out at others, or responsibly allow them up and out.
When I was studying to become a psychotherapist, a professor once told me that people generally seek therapy for one of two reasons: They’re either having a tantrum or they need to have one. I’ve actually counseled people for many additional reasons, but my teacher’s tantrum theory stuck with me over the years. As I‘ve worked with many clients (as well as myself), I’ve recognized the importance of an occasional adult tantrum.
We all experience bumps in the road that trigger emotions. These bumps can range from minor irritations to challenging hardships to major traumas.
A flat tire, a root canal, lost luggage: not fun, but likely something you’ll get over fairly quickly. Your child’s difficulties in school, a rough patch at work, financial problems, marital problems: these can get you down for months. And then there are those life-changing, sucker-punch events that can knock us down for the count: a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, an unwanted divorce, a natural or unnatural disaster. Personally, I’d like to speak to the manager in charge of doling these out, but there’s no escaping the fact that they are part of the human experience.
Obviously, minor glitches are easier to deal with and recover from, but what about those ongoing stressful circumstances or the overwhelming realities we have to bear that truly feel unbearable?
How can we allow and express our natural emotions so that we don’t have to implode and hurt ourselves or explode and hurt others? This is where a self-induced, responsible tantrum comes in.
I remember a time many years ago when my little nephew (now a grown man with a child of his own) came over for a sleepover. We’d just finished a fun day at an amusement park and I informed him that it was time to leave. He was not at all happy about this new development in our day and he proceeded to have a full-on tantrum.
Being a new therapist (not to mention an aunt, which is infinitely less challenging than a parent), I told him it was fine for him to have his feelings, but we were still going to need to head home in a few minutes.
Well, have his feelings he did. That boy let it rip. He proceeded to fling his little body onto the ground, kick, scream, and roll around in the dirt. After what felt like a really long time (but was probably about a minute), he picked himself up, walked over to me, and with a tear-stained, dirty little face said, “I was mad. And then I was sad. Now I’m ready to go.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
In the therapy world, we might refer to my nephew’s actions as “fully expressing your feelings” or going through one or more of the natural stages of grief. Practically speaking, a healthy, grown-up tantrum can look like many things: hitting a punching bag, mattress, or pillow, talking about your feelings with someone who’s comfortable with emotions, crying, wailing, screaming, shaking, writing, drawing, or scribbling. Anything your body wants to do to express your emotions, as long as nobody (including yourself) and nothing of value gets hurt.
A friend of mine will occasionally email me a long string of curse words when life throws her a doozy. No spaces. Just one long string of words. She takes several of her favorite curse words and merges them into one very long word to emphasize her feelings. Depending on the difficulty of the situation and her level of emotions, several or more exclamation points might follow it up. This seems to do the trick for her.
If it’s not practical or possible to have a tantrum out loud, we can also have one in our imaginations. A client recently told me about a night when she’d been struggling with insomnia. She tried her usual list of calming tools—meditation, counting breaths, repeating a mantra—but nothing seemed to help. She knew she was filled with feelings and felt like she was about to burst.
Then, she remembered a time when she’d had a responsible tantrum during one of our sessions and how it really released the internal pressure valve. In my office, she’d hit a chair with a tennis racquet and screamed into a pillow, but here she was in the middle of the night next to a sleeping husband, next door to a sleeping child. So, she decided to imagine her tantrum. She pictured herself screaming at the top of her lungs and throwing around mattresses. Lots of mattresses. She said it really helped and she was eventually able to get back to sleep.
Whatever your choices of expression are, when you consciously, responsibly, unabashedly, compassionately, and safely allow yourself to have an adult tantrum, you’re more likely to move through your emotions and organically arrive at some form of relief and acceptance.
Of course, the more serious the life event, the longer the tantrum may need to last and reoccur. But, we all have the options of stuffing our feelings down, blasting them out in unhealthy ways, or fully expressing what we feel in a healthy manner and eventually coming to accept what life has brought to our door.
When we compassionately and safely allow ourselves to express our strong emotions, we can navigate the turbulent phases of life without hurting ourselves or anyone else. We naturally return to acceptance and presence rather than stay stuck in denial, depression, anxiety, addiction, or self-defeating behaviors.
So, the next time you feel filled to the brim with feelings, how about letting yourself have a healthy, safe, responsible tantrum? How about some extra support, extra tissues, and extra self-care, until your tear-stained self is ready to move on?
May we all, in the face of our adversities, follow in the footsteps of my young nephew: feel mad, feel sad, and then feel ready to go.