Emotional outbursts are common among children — but adult temper tantrums happen, too. Here’s how to handle it.

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You may not be too shocked when a little kid throws a tantrum in public — but is it understandable for adults to throw them?

In the age of social media, nearly all of us have seen clips of adults who explode in public. These videos often show people becoming extremely aggressive and irate. They usually have one thing in common: They’re not getting what they want.

Temper tantrums are a normal part of childhood development. Children, especially toddlers, sometimes struggle to control and express their emotions. As we learn to regulate emotions and verbalize our needs better, we typically grow out of having these outbursts.

However, adults can have tantrums, too.

This can involve an upheaval due to frustration or anger. In some cases, an outburst might relate to mental health conditions, including personality disorders.

What does an adult temper tantrum look like? It varies from one situation to the next. But they often resemble:

The silent fit

In this case, someone throws a temper tantrum in “silence” — or at least without verbally speaking.

They might stomp, pace, or block your path. They might refuse to talk or listen to you. Although this isn’t spoken, they may still become very aggressive.

The tirade

A tirade can include ranting, shouting, and insulting others. Some parents may call this a “meltdown.”

People sometimes start throwing things or slamming doors. They might threaten violence or become physically violent.

The whine and moan

Angry crying, moaning, and blustering might be involved here. Someone might huff and puff, scream, or cuss. They might also insult others.

Is it something else?

Sometimes, what looks like a temper tantrum at first glance is actually something else.

For example, the wide-eyed pacing and ragged breathing of a panic attack might look like a temper tantrum, but panic attacks are intense physical and mental symptoms, not simply an emotional reaction.

Someone might also have an outburst due to sensory overload, or burst into tears due to grief. While this might be unusual to see in public, it’s not the same as a temper tantrum.

Adults can have temper tantrums for a variety of reasons. It’s not always easy to tell why a person is having one.

While many people assume all dysregulated outbursts are done for attention, there are a variety of possible reasons.

Sometimes, adult temper tantrums are used as a means to manipulate others. If someone feels ashamed or afraid, they might purposefully throw a temper tantrum. People might simply have a temper tantrum if they don’t get their own way.

But sometimes a temper tantrum doesn’t stem from emotions. Someone might struggle to regulate their emotions if they feel overwhelmed, which could make it difficult to express their feelings in a constructive way.

An adult outburst could also be linked to a mental health condition.

For example, statistics show that anywhere between 20–67% of people with Tourette syndrome and tic disorders may have rage attacks. A rage attack isn’t done with the intent of manipulating others — it’s a release of pent-up anger.

Rage attacks may be focused on others or yourself.

In some cases, meltdowns are linked to substance use. When you’re intoxicated, regulating emotions can be more difficult.

At times, it can be difficult for anyone to manage emotions. This is especially true when we’re feeling consumed by agitation. This emotion could be anger, but it could also be grief, frustration, or shame.

Stress can also make it harder to regulate your emotions.

During the pandemic, many people have had heightened feelings of anger or aggression. According to an interview in Stanford Medicine, anger can be quite difficult to grapple with — but it can be channeled positively when we learn to deal with it constructively.

Often in tantrum videos that go viral, people have outbursts when they’re called out on a selfish behavior.

But sometimes, the trigger for an adult outburst might be understandable: for example, someone might be mistreated, or experience injustice or systematic oppression. Other times, anger stems from grief or extreme stress.

Hormonal changes such as menopause can also produce new and strong emotions that can be hard to handle.

This isn’t to say it’s OK to have an outburst, especially if you’re insulting or threatening others. Still, it’s important to remember that you may not always know the reason behind an outburst when you see one.

Although verbal or nonverbal outbursts aren’t always linked to mental health, it can play a role.

The symptoms of some mental health conditions might resemble a tantrum. These conditions include:

If you notice frequent and intense episodes that look to others like a tantrum, it might be a sign that you need to speak to a mental health professional.

A therapist could help you process the experience and look at underlying causes. Therapy could also be an opportunity to learn how to better express and regulate your emotions.

If you’re in close quarters with someone who’s having an adult tantrum, you might not know what to do. You could feel alarmed, particularly if they seem irate.

You might find it best to do the following:

  • Assess the situation. Are we talking about someone bursting into tears but not becoming violent, or someone who’s explosive, angry, and threatening? This will help you decide on an appropriate response.
  • If they’re beyond the point of reason, don’t engage. While you might want to defend yourself or another person, they might not be open to discussion. Engaging could worsen the situation. It may be wise to walk away if possible.
  • If you must talk with them, use a calm and even tone. Although their behavior might anger you, matching their anger could worsen the situation.
  • Don’t take it personally. Nobody has the right to threaten or insult you, but remember that their behavior is not a reflection on you.
  • Keep yourself safe. If they threaten violence, leave the area.
  • In severe cases, you might want to contact an authority figure. If you’re in a situation where you think someone might become violent, seeking authority could help. For example, in a store, you might contact management staff or security.
  • Breathe and decompress afterward. It can be frightening, upsetting, and frustrating to deal with a temper tantrum. Take time to process how you feel about it.

If it’s your loved one that had the outburst, it might be wise to help them find assistance. You could wait for the tantrum to subside and then gently broach the topic. If possible, suggest that they speak with a therapist.

Remember that it’s OK to set boundaries — even with a loved one. If their temper tantrums are making you feel unsafe, or if they’re unwilling to work on it, you’re allowed to remove yourself from the situation.