THE HUMAN CONDITION / TANTRUMS : Temper, Temper! : Frustration Breeds Fury--Even in Adults, Who Ought to Know Better


The first few innings had been ego-bruisers for Richard Martell’s band of middle-aged softball players.

“We were down by six runs,” recalls Martell, a 39-year-old vice president of a Los Angeles home furnishings store.

Then came the last inning. With two outs, two on and Martell’s team ahead by two, the batter smacked the ball to the second baseman, who tagged the base.

“Out!” thought Martell.


“Safe!” cried umpire Joel Rosenzweig, who was also a member of the opposing team.

“You’re wrong!” Martell shouted at Rosenzweig, a 42-year-old television director who has played softball with Martell for eight years. “We’ll take it over.”

Rosenzweig refused. Martell shook his fist, yelled and used a four-letter word. Rosenzweig stomped off the field.

Later, Rosenzweig admitted it: They were having temper tantrums.


Mention temper tantrums, and most people are likely to visualize a screaming, head-banging, fist-clenching toddler--a child of an age when tantrums are normal--and usually transient--behavior.

“In kids, tantrums are a normal stage, usually born of frustration,” says Dr. Wayne Sandler, medical director of the Psychiatric Institute at Century City Hospital. “In adults, it can be similar. We have a way of expecting things (to go a certain way).”

Child-rearing books offer volumes of advice on how to deal with pint-sized tantrums; most recommend ignoring the child if it’s just a plea for attention.

But coping with adult explosions is a much trickier business, partly because few experts have formally studied outbursts commonly associated with tennis bad boy John McEnroe, Cincinnati Reds Manager Lou Piniella and Hollywood prima donnas.


Everyday folks get into the act too.

“I listen to two or three tantrums a week,” says Pat Malone, who owns a Glendale towing service. He impounds cars illegally parked at shopping malls and other private lots.

Before taking time out for a recent interview, he had just been yelled at by a woman who had parked illegally at a Burbank studio.

“Three of every 10 people (I tow) are maniacs,” he says.


Even the best hotels endure outbursts from their upper-crust guests. But don’t expect details. Most are too embarrassed to air their dirty linen.

“Sure, our guests have tantrums,” says a spokesperson for a well-known Beverly Hills hotel, “but it would be bad for our image to discuss this.”

Adult tantrums come in all forms. There are freeway tantrums, credit check tantrums, lovers’ spat tantrums, parent-child tantrums and boss-employee tantrums.

And over the din, the door slamming, the angry words, the clenched fists and the obscene gestures, adult tantrum-throwers share a common goal: They are trying--sometimes desperately--to communicate, Sandler says.


They yell and bang and scream, he says, because they feel no one is listening to them.

Exactly when angry behavior becomes tantrum behavior is an arguable point, says Jerry Deffenbacher, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University who specializes in anger research.

“There are differing opinions on what constitutes a tantrum. You see many people, especially in L.A., throwing mini-tantrums behind the wheel. . . .”

A full-fledged tantrum usually includes angry, loud speech and some bodily gesture--such as stomping, most experts agree.


“I’m not so sure adults are that far away from kids,” Deffenbacher adds, noting that tantrum-throwing adults often “go pounding through the house, hitting and throwing things.”

Not surprisingly, people with a low tolerance for frustration are more likely to throw a tantrum, experts say. Childhood experiences may play a role as well.

“Often adults who throw tantrums are those who were told growing up, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way,’ ” Sandler says. “They were never heard.”

And there’s some evidence that ill-tempered children become ill-tempered adults.


The journal Developmental Psychology reported in 1987 on a 30-year study of 200 people who threw temper tantrums as children. Those with severe childhood tantrums tended to have temper and mood problems later in life too. Men with tantrum histories were found to be more likely to have erratic work lives and to divorce their partners. Women tended to marry men with lower job status, to divorce and to be ill-tempered mothers.

Lee Anna Clark, associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says men and women throw tantrums for different reasons.

Men’s outbursts often spring from what Clark calls their “sense of entitlement"--the belief that they deserve, for instance, courteous service from a hotel desk clerk after a long business trip.

“For women, a tantrum is more likely to be frustration- or desire-based,” says Clark, who studies moods and emotions but has done no formal research on the subject. A woman might throw a tantrum, for instance, after repeatedly asking her boss for a raise and not getting one.


Although a tantrum sometimes can be productive, Sandler says, “it’s not necessarily mentally healthy.”

A tantrum is rarely born just out of anger, he notes. Often, there’s a lot of frustration mixed in. Sometimes the person is feeling hurt or ignored. But during a tantrum, the anger is most visible “and all those other feelings get missed,” he says.

“Some people feel ventilating in that way helps,” Sandler says. “Others say it is just a rehearsal of the anger” and makes you feel worse.

“That’s not to say that you should contain your anger,” Sandler adds. But he does think it’s better to find a less volatile way to express it. “As an adult, I don’t see a role for tantrums. What you want is someone to be there, to listen to you.”


Innocent bystanders can be wounded by tantrum-throwers, who don’t always direct their screaming at their targets. Like a kid who kicks the wall instead of a parent, adults who have had a bad day may direct their tantrums at a waiter or a hotel desk clerk rather than at their bosses or partners.

That comes as no surprise to Suzanne Webb. As a desk clerk at the Burbank Hilton, Webb, 23, has seen more than her share of tantrums. “One man in his mid 40s,” she says, “came stomping down to the desk and needed to see a manager right away.”

She summoned the manager to the guest’s room. When he arrived, the guest pointed at the toilet angrily. “Isn’t the water level a little high?” he asked shrilly.

Another guest tried to check in without identification, cash or credit cards. “‘I’m with the Republican Party,” she said haughtily. When Webb pressed her for ID, “she just went off at me.”


To get through his job as a tow truck operator, Pat Malone tries to maintain perspective. He says most people who yell at him know, deep down, that “they screwed up.” His sense of humor also helps him cope: The burly six-footer drives a pink-and-white tow truck.

“I think the pink calms people down,” he says. After he has collected his fees, he’ll often ask: “What, no tip?”

“Either they laugh or they really go off on me,” he says.

If you can’t stop yourself from throwing tantrums, the next best step may be to get picky about where and with whom you have outbursts, experts say.


Trouble is, those experts don’t agree on the safest milieu. Clark of SMU sees little risk in throwing a tantrum in front of, say, a hotel desk clerk. “A stranger in a sense doesn’t matter. You may or may not get what you want, and there are no long-term consequences.”

Others say it’s safer--and more excusable--to throw tantrums around loved ones.

“Friends will tolerate the anger more than strangers will,” Sandler says. “A complete relationship (sometimes) includes anger. If you throw a tantrum in front of a stranger, all you have is the anger.”

That concept makes sense to ball players Martell and Rosenzweig, who apologized and went to breakfast after the game.


And two weeks after their tantrums, both said they hold no grudges.

“If I was down to my last $20,” says Rosenzweig, “I’d give Richard $10. . . . Well, maybe $5.”