But seriously, folks

Back to the real reason I started this blog– this blog that has wandered around the world, engaged in politics, and has told you how I feel about Israel. Back to talking about family relationships…

Let me begin by saying something rather radical that will summarize what I am about to say:

Don’t take people who are upset seriously.
That’s it. Don’t.

OK, Let me go back and talk about it and then you will understand, I hope.

When we are little and non-verbal, our tantrums usually consist of non-stop crying, flailing, and throwing things. As we get a little older, our parents encourage us to express our displeasure in more socially acceptable ways, i.e., talking about it. So, by the age of twenty or so, we (most of us) stop screaming, yelling and throwing things and instead use words to express our displeasure.

So far, so good.

However, it sometimes happens that we use words in the same way as we used our stuffed toy animals and blocks and little train cars–we take them and throw them at others like weapons.

In response, those who love us are hurt, surprised, and often themselves become angry and hurtful.

So here we are. Mature, adult two year olds having a simultaneous tantrum.

Now what happens in tantrum state?

The person who is having the tantrum has two major objectives
1. To get his/her point across.
2. To let the other person/people know how upset he/she is.

In accomplishing the second, often the message of the first is lost. Not only that, but the listeners may actually be less motivated to hear the message as they move to defend themselves and pay back in kind. Which is why most arguments do not end well.

Few people realize, however, that when someone is in tantrum state he/she often loses control of his/her ability to think clearly and may say lots of things that he/she doesn’t mean. Some of those things may have dire consequences.

Take my uncle.

When my cousin was a freshman in college my cousin decided to grow a beard. My uncle did not like the idea of his son having a beard. He tried to cajole him and finally, in a tantrum state, threatened him- telling him that if he didn’t remove the beard, he couldn’t come home.

Do I have to tell you the rest of the story?

It was not a happy story.

Did my uncle mean to lose his son for a long period of time? I strongly doubt it. He just got carried away.

What could have happened instead:
My cousin could have listened to the tantrum. He could have responded calmly or not at all, he could have gotten up and walked away. Chances are pretty good that once my uncle got back in control of himself, he would have still not liked the beard, but might have realized that it wasn’t worth losing his son over it.

Example two:

When I began studying for my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania at age 42– after having been in clinical practice as a family therapist, I was ambivalent. On the one hand, the idea of getting a doctorate was very exciting. On the other hand, I felt the level of instruction in certain areas was naive and simplistic and since the tuition was high, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make the investment of our family’s resources.

I don’t remember what specifically set me off, but one morning, early in November, before we had received any tuition bills, I got really angry and told my husband that I was dropping out and didn’t want any more part of the nonsense going on at the school and that I could think of a lot of things to do with my time and our money that would be more productive etc. I went on and on. He didn’t answer. I’m pretty sure it was because he didn’t know what to say. But after a while, it just ran down. I was finished and I picked up my books and left for school.

Could it have ended otherwise? Surely. Had he gotten sucked into the tantrum, he would have urged me to continue and I would have dropped out just to show him that he couldn’t control me.

Tantrums do bad things to people.

When I was seeing couples in marital therapy, often what the spouses would complain about was what the other one had said at the height of a tantrum. Usually, the spouse either didn’t remember having said it or regretted saying it. In fact, it was not the spouse speaking from his/her rational mind. It was that reptilian brain that all of us have inside of us. It is that primitive fight or flight mechanism that that springs into action when we begin to feel any sort of threat.

So what should we do when someone we care about starts having a tantrum? Don’t respond in kind. Listen, to the message but don’t take everything he/she says seriously. Really. He/she doesn’t mean half of what he/she is saying. There’s no need for there to be more than one two year old in the room. Not feeding the flames helps extinguish them. And once the person is rational again, maybe the problem can even be solved!

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  1. Funny, I recently compared some people I know to 2-year-olds… Though I guess you could consider their lives a perpetual tantrum. Not a pretty thing…

  2. Oh! Oh! Brilliant to see this in black & white. I think we all know it, intellectually, but to have someone clarify it makes a huge difference. Plus, now I can email this to my husband so he knows to ignore me next time 😉

  3. Irvin Phillips says

    hey great post.

    First off i really enjoy your blog and enjoy the off topic post of politics and anything your mind conjures up. About ignoring upset people, i couldn’t agree more. I was trying to ship one of my vehicles overseas and contacted this company whose customer service representative was very rude and obnoxious. i couldn’t believe it!