For many years now I have worked with children. Most of them have had autism, speech problems, cognitive delays, or some kind of behavioural problem. It has been an immense privilege to work so closely with so many children and their families over the years. No two families are the same in how their household is run in my experience, every family is its own unique culture. However, I have never encountered a family without the most classic and pervasive power struggle dynamic of them all: the tantrum thrower and the enabler. In every family I have encountered there has always been two people taking on these roles in some way. Child to child, child to adult, and adult to adult: the methods of throwing a tantrum may vary in age groups, but tantrums are ubiquitous. Understanding the nature of tantrums is a good strategy for unravelling the origins of dysfunction in any unhealthy relationship.
First, since we’re all about philosophy here, we need to make sure that we define our terms. A tantrum is a display of hyper emotionality usually resulting from being informed of some bad news. They can be overt through the use of shouting, crying and other verbal cues. They can be violent with the throwing and breaking of things. They can be subtle with silent treatment, passive aggressive words and deeds. They can be sophisticated with rationales, lies, excuses, and guilt trips. A tantrum never involves negotiation or an honest account of one’s situation.
An enabler is a person who responds to a tantrum by treating it as a legitimate complaint and is at least partially compliant with the demands made by the tantrum thrower*. The habit of throwing a tantrum begins by a person expressing displeasure about something, while another person, the enabler, responds to this displeasure in the other person as though they were responsible for fixing it. The enable believes they are capable of making the other person happy and through this they believe they can control the other person. Often the enabler has an elaborate justification for why they enable people, one that paints them in a heroic or some other virtuous light, but in truth most enablers do not know the real reasons why they enable.
Johnathon, aged 3, wanted to go outside to play on the swing, but it was pouring with rain so his mother, Jodie, told him he couldn’t go outside. Johnathon was unhappy with this and started screaming and wailing that he wanted to go outside. His mother kept trying to explain to him that it was too wet and cold to go outside, but Johnathon wouldn’t listen to her, he started picking up his toys and throwing them across the room. Fearing that the neighbours might hear all the commotion, Jodie gave in, put him in his raincoat and stood outside pushing him on the swing in the rain. Johnathon was quite pleased with this, but soon got upset with the rain and started crying and demanding to be taken back inside. His mother complied with him exasperatedly.
Here in this example, we see that Johnathon was the tantrum thrower. When confronted with something he did not want to be told, he threw a tantrum. If it is unreasonable for a sailor to fly a commercial passenger jet, it is unreasonable for a three year old to be making the decisions in the household. The best person qualified should be in charge of the decision making. However, here an adult, Jodie, is submitting to a three year old’s authority. Jodie is enabling her son’s irrational belief that he is the one in charge of the household. Johnathon may grow out of his tantrums, but it will probably be because someone else puts him in his place: his father, his friends, his teachers or even Jodie when he gets too big to get away with his tantrums any more. The behaviour of a tantrum will continue for so long as there are people around to enable it.
Jodie is not helping Johnathon at all. Although I have seen mothers in this situation describe themselves as enabling because they love their children. This is just an excuse often told by enablers so they do not need to take responsibility for the harm they are doing to the tantrum thrower, because, Johnathon here is learning some very bad lessons here. He is learning that if he wants something, he can’t do it for himself, he must rely on someone else, an enabler, to provide it for him. This lesson, if reinforced as he grows up, will lead to a man who believes he can’t do anything for himself. This is the classic “Peter Pan” an adult male who lives like he’s still a child not taking responsibility for his bad decisions; and yes, there are plenty of grown women who still act like little girls also. Such an adult believes that he needs other people to look after him. That the only way he can get what he wants is to lie, manipulate, pressure, frighten, and control other people. The kindest thing that Jodie could have done for Johnathon would be to just sit him in the corner by himself to fully appreciate how futile throwing a tantrum actually is. Once on realises that throwing a tantrum is futile, then one can take an active role in one’s life seeing oneself as the only person who can actually make one happy. However, considering how common it is for a child to be enabled by at least one parent (and it is not just mothers) this conflict with reality is inevitable for everyone at some point in time.
Katie was going out for a date with Jeremy. She two other sisters had told her that their dates had paid for their meal. Katie was excited about this and made sure she ordered a nice expensive meal. However, to her surprise at the end of the dinner date Jeremy indicated that he was not going to pay for her meal. Katie was furious and declared that she had never been so embarrassed in her life. Jeremy was shocked by her statement that he didn’t know what to say. Then Katie started crying and saying that her night had been ruined. Jeremy hurriedly paid for Katie’s meal. Katie was quite pleased with this result, but she noted that Jeremy never contacted or responded to her again.
One curious thing that most people do when they are confronted with a person who throws tantrums is assume that this person is doing so from some kind of orchestrated and carefully thought out plan. This might be true for the odd sociopath, however, for the vast majority of people who throw tantrums they do not even notice they are doing it. In fact, when they are presented with evidence of their bad behaviour they are horrified by it. Usually so horrified that they try to dissociate themselves from it. Sometimes rationalising it, other times pretending it never happened, while others throw a tantrum at being reminded of it; Typically making up excuses for their bullying behaviour. The person throwing the tantrum does not know why they have this habit, nor do they know why they tend to be surrounded by enablers of their bad behaviour. They lack the self-knowledge to understand where their behaviour comes from and why it is so damaging to their lives. So when they are accused of being calculating and controlling they are typically genuinely confused because they don’t intend to cause the harm to their relationships they are literally doing to themselves. The road to Hell of course is paved with good intentions.
The biggest problem for any tantrum thrower is that they will eventually end up surrounded by enablers. The reason for this is rather straight forward. Would you like to be near a person who throws tantrums? Most people will say no to this, and most people have the self-respect to walk away from a relationship with a person who throws tantrums. The only people who will stay in a relationship with a tantrum thrower are enablers. In this case it is difficult to say who is worse: the thrower or the enabler. The person throwing the tantrum is typically oblivious to their bad behaviour, but the enabler chooses to enable the bad behaviour of the thrower in the hopes of getting something out of them: although they are seldom honest enough to admit this. Both tantrum throwers and enablers are manipulative and controlling people. They both have low self-respect, they differ only in the diametrically opposed strategies employed to control other people.
Suppose for instance that Jeremy wanted to sleep with Katie more than he liked his self-respect. In such a case he might have apologised to Katie for not immediately paying for her dinner and kept on pursuing a relationship with her. He would have concealed his frustration with her, and perhaps even called the self-erasure of his pain as proof that he loved her. (Love of course has nothing to do with pretending some people don’t have faults). What Jeremy is telling Katie, by enabler her tantrum, is that her behaviour is acceptable and it was all Jeremy’s fault. Jeremy might end up manipulating Katie into sleeping with him, and then dumping her when it suits him to, while Katie will not get any signals that her own behaviour is endangering her interests. Katie, now reassured that men ought to pay for her meals, will only seek out the men who do so: Men who legitimise her tantrums, and lead to her perhaps raising a family one day full of children who are throwers and enablers of tantrums themselves. Thus perpetuating this dysfunctional behaviour into another generation.
Because the behaviour of tantrum throwing will continue so long as there is at least one person in one’s life who will enable the tantrums the only sure way for a person who throws tantrums to recover from them is to remove the people in their lives who enable them, or for the people who enable them to remove themselves from that person’s life. Occasionally a person is saved by gaining self-knowledge voluntarily. The loss of an enabler is often taken as a devastating blow to the tantrum thrower. This is because the tantrum thrower has gotten used to the enabler over inflating their sense of self-worth: they will typically see themselves as more attractive, valuable, or important than they actually are. The loss of an enabler comes as a huge blow to one’s sense of esteem. However, this pain is a necessary part of maturing into an active and responsible adult.
The curious thing is, although tantrum throwers depend so much on their enablers, they typically have no respect for these people. They see enablers as pathetic, weak people, whom they do not concern themselves about should their actions hurt or exploit them. Even when an enabler stands up for themselves and leaves the relationship, the tantrum thrower seldom gets angry with themselves for taking this person for granted, they get angry with the enabler for not completely sacrificing themselves and their life for the tantrum thrower. Enablers are their own worst enemies.
If Jeremy had had the strength of character to insist that Katie pay for her own meal, she would have been furious with him. She probably never would talk to him again. However, she would also have some valuable feedback: throwing a tantrum did not work. Once a person realises that throwing a tantrum no longer works for them they have a chance then to gain self-knowledge and learn a new way of dealing with other people and relating to them. They can finally mature and learn to provide themselves with what they need instead of hoping for an enabler to come and rescue them from their passivity and feelings of helplessness.
If Katie finds herself surrounded by young men eager to enable her tantrums, she will socially isolate herself from people who would genuinely care for her. Instead, she would end up being surrounded only by people wishing only to use her. Eventually, Katie’s sexual appeal will wear off and no one will be willing to enable her. She will be completely alone and unloved. Curiously enough, most women and some men, I talk to are aware of this on some level. They recognise that when their looks fade they will no longer be able to get away with throwing tantrums anymore like they used to. They refer to this as being the end of their life being worth living – presumably because they will no longer have any enablers to artificially prop up their self-respect through vanity.
Essentially a tantrum is the use of emotional blackmail to coerce someone into doing something. Children tend to be rather crude and obvious throwers of tantrums, but adults, particularly wealthy or attractive ones, can master the art of a tantrum so as to make an illegitimate injustice appear convincingly legitimate. However, the person who throws the tantrum inevitably becomes a weak passive person who waits for other people to change or fix their problems for them, rather than changing themselves or fixing their own problems. Far from feeling powerful, the tantrum thrower feels weak, small, and powerless to control their own life. They feel they need other people to rescue them instead and feel hurt when those people do not stick around to save them from their own problems. If you are an enabler, often the kindest and most loving thing you can actually do for a person who throws tantrums is to leave them. If you are the tantrum thrower, the people who choose to leave you are often better people than the ones who choose to stay with you.
* It should be noted that sometimes a tantrum is a legitimate complaint. People in desperate situations or unskilled in communication, might fumble out a highly emotional display. In this situation, the mature thing to do is to wait until both sides of the dispute are calm and then reason it out. A person throwing an illegitimate tantrum won’t want to calm down, and an enabler will not expect the person throwing the tantrum to calm down – they will attempt to calm them down for them.