Many psychological professionals and educators make a distinction between tantrums and meltdowns. Tantrums are common in preschoolers because they do not have sufficient language to express their needs, explains special educator Amanda Morin in an article, “The Difference Between Tantrums and Meltdowns.” Nor do they have an ability yet to control their emotions.
Adults have tantrums when thwarted from having something they desire. They cry, show rage, and give the silent treatment to others. Tantrums are best handled not by giving in but by “acknowledging what is wanted,” says Morin.
In both children and adults, tantrums can progress to meltdowns when people feel completely overwhelmed. Such situations can be triggered by an inability to cope with “pain, fear, and unexpected changes to situations like divorce or job loss,” say Morin.
During meltdowns people “yell, cry, lash out, flee, or shut down,” Morin observes, and meltdowns end when people exhaust themselves. Meltdowns are a problem “in coping. …with tension or painful emotions, (not because [the person] wants or needs something),” points out writer Crystal Raypole in “The Low Down on Adult Tantrums, Meltdowns and Rage Attacks.” She finds meltdowns occur among people in many diagnostic categories—depression, intermittent explosive disorder, autism, and Tourette’s disorder.
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Does the way people have tantrums or meltdowns indicate anything about who they are psychologically and what their personality is like? In studies of thousands of people in our psychotherapy practices, Homer B. Martin, MD, and I discovered that the answer is yes. Distinct personalities have different thresholds for tantrums and meltdowns. Their upsets unfold in characteristic ways with differing motivations.
We discovered people display one of two roles, or personalities—an omnipotent personality or an impotent personality. Both are learned from parents or caretakers within the first three years of life by an emotional conditioning process.
The Omnipotent Personality
Omnipotent role people are expected to be overly strong and to have an abundance of self-control. They are labeled omnipotent because the self-view of these children and adults is that of having great strength and power to accomplish tasks and to dispense unlimited care to others. Parents expect a great deal from these children. Later, as adults, such people expect a lot from themselves.
The Impotent Personality
Impotent role people are not expected to demonstrate much self-control. They are raised with the expectation that other people will fulfill their needs. The impotent label comes from their self-view of being helpless and inert. Parents overindulge such children, expecting little in the way of accomplishments and little regard for or care to others in their relationships.
Personality Differences in Tantrums and Meltdowns
We observed that tantrums rarely happen in omnipotent personalities. Omnipotent people rarely protest when they don’t get their way in relationships. Instead, they usually acquire to what other people want.
Only when unable to assume an omnipotent role will these people experience meltdowns. For example, a meltdown could occur if an omnipotent has a demanding boss at work or spouse at home whom they try mightily to satisfy but fail to do so. They may emotionally melt down with self-recrimination and guilt over failing to meet the impossible demands. There may be tears, weeping, rage at oneself, or withdrawal. Suicide risk may be elevated at such times in omnipotent role people.
Impotent personalities more readily display tantrums and meltdowns. Like preschoolers, they throw tantrums when they do not get their way. They expect others to meet their demands. They have a low threshold for disappointments and easily display upset. Impotent personalities do not experience the self-recrimination that omnipotent personalities do when melting down. Instead, impotents often lash out and get angry at others who fail to satisfy their desires. They believe there is something amiss with others, not with themselves.
Impotent personalities display helplessness through their poor coping abilities. Ordinary events can overwhelm them—getting to work or school on time, making reasonably good school grades, parenting, cooking meals, or paying bills. When overwhelmed by mundane tasks, they may display emotional meltdowns with crying, withdrawal, making threats to self-harm, running off, or giving others the silent treatment.
The Value in Identifying Type
When you witness people having tantrums or emotional meltdowns, or when you have one yourself, you can discover a lot about the emotionally conditioned role by examining the following:
- What circumstances provoked the episode? A rather simple task, or a huge overwhelming stressor?
- What do you or they talk about or focus on? The degree of upset with you or upset with others?
- Who is lashed out at? You or others?
- If a tantrum, is what is wanted reasonable for the situation or not? Is it a reasonable response?
- If a meltdown, what do you/they see doing differently next time in a similar situation?
Omnipotent role people will tell you of a terrible and truly overwhelming stressor—the boss who assigns a large work project Friday to be delivered Monday morning. They will be upset with themselves for not satisfying an impossible person or unachievable task. They will focus on needing to try harder or do better next time.
Impotently conditioned people reveal that a trifle stressor sets off their meltdown, such as the expectation they get to work on time daily. They regard the stressor as huge, overwhelming, unattainable. They dwell on how wronged they are by the expectation. They want the other person to expect less of them and make things easier for them in the future. They expect no effort from themselves to cope more reasonably. They feel entitled to have repeat tantrums or meltdowns as they feel the need for them.
How To Approach Emotional Blowups in Different Personalities
Whether friends, workmates, or family members, people in the two roles need to be approached differently. Both need reality checks.
Omnipotent-role people are realistically overwhelmed and trying to do something impossible. Too much is being asked of them. They should be agreed of the request to do more than they can. They should not be upset with themselves for failing to do the impossible.
Impotent-role people are feeling overwhelmed by a task they can, in reality, master and that other people do every day, without melting down. They need more self-focus and responsibility for their behavior. They should not blame their boss, roommate, or spouse.
By distinguishing emotionally conditioned roles, you can help yourself, friends, family, or coworkers cease unreasonable tantrums and emotional meltdowns. You may discover more about your emotional conditioning and personality. You can get to work on lessening your tantrums and meltdowns.