A tantrum, temper tantrum, meltdown or hissy fit is an emotional outburst, usually associated with children or those in emotional distress, that is typically characterized by stubbornness, crying, screaming, defiance, anger ranting, a resistance to attempts at pacification and, in some cases, hitting. Physical control may be lost; the person may be unable to remain still; and even if the "goal" of the person is met, he or she may not be calmed. A tantrum may be expressed in a tirade: a protracted, angry, or violent speech.
Tantrums are one of the most common forms of problematic behaviour in young children, but tend to decrease in frequency and intensity as the child grows older. For the toddler, tantrums can be considered as normal, even as gauges of a developing strength of character.
While tantrums are sometimes seen as a predictor of future anti-social behaviour, in another sense they are simply an age-appropriate sign of excessive frustration, and will diminish over time given a calm and consistent handling. Parental containment where a child cannot contain itself - rather than what the child is ostensibly demanding - may be what is really required.
Selma Fraiberg warned against "too much pressure or forceful methods of control from the outside" in child-rearing: "if we turn every instance of pants changing, treasure hunting, napping, puddle wading and garbage distribution into a governmental crisis we can easily bring on fierce defiance, tantrums, and all the fireworks of revolt in the nursery".
Some people who have neurological disorders such as autism or intellectual disability could be more prone to tantrums than others, when it happens, they throw themselves on the floor, crying, screaming and kicking as a means of getting across that things are "not right", although anyone experiencing brain damage (temporary or permanent) can suffer from tantrums. Anyone may be prone to tantrums once in a while, regardless of gender or age.
Freud considered that the Wolf Man's development of temper tantrums was connected with his seduction by his sister: he became "discontented, irritable and violent, took offence on every possible occasion, and then flew into a rage and screamed like a savage". Freud linked the tantrums to an unconscious need for punishment driven by feelings of guilt - something which he thought could be generalised to many other cases of childhood tantrums.
Heinz Kohut contended that tantrums were narcissistic rages, caused by the thwarting of the infant's grandiose-exhibitionist core. The blow to the inflated self-image, when a child's wishes are (however justifiably) refused, creates fury because it strikes at the feeling of omnipotence.
In later life
Heinz Kohut contended that "the infant's core is likely to contain a self-centred, grandiose-exhibitionist part", and that "tantrums at being frustrated thus represent narcissistic rages" at the blow to the inflated self-image. With "a child confronted with some refusal ... regardless of its justifications, the refusal automatically provokes fury, since it offends his sense of omnipotence".
If tantrums are shown by older people they might often be signs of immaturity and a mental disability, however many people can have them under extreme stress.
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- Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) p. 242
- Freud, p. 257
- Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) p. 257-8 and p. 242
- H. and I. Goldenberg, Family Therapy (2007) p. 172
- Edmund Bergler in J. Halliday/P. Fuller eds., The Psychology of Gambling (London 1974) p. 182
- Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York 1987) p. 152
- William Makepeace Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book (1848) p. 138
- Cooper Lawrence, The Cult of Celebrity (2009) p. 72
- Simon Crompton, All about Me (London 2007) p. 176
- The dictionary definition of tantrum at Wiktionary