Here’s an easy question: The last-or most memorable-time you said something hurtful you came to regret, were you basically feeling calm or were you feeling stressed out?
We all know children act out when they’re tired, hungry or mad that someone is hogging a favorite toy. But many also experience stress far more serious than missing naptime. It could be parents divorcing, a serious illness in the family, bullying at school, or any number of circumstances that threaten a child’s sense of security and feelings of lovability.So often, when we lash out at a spouse, partner or family member, stress is a factor. It may well start with a legitimate grievance, but add into the mix a bad day, a bad headache or other underlying stressors, and suddenly mature adults can regress to five-year-olds-tantrums and all.
When it comes to adults, here’s where stress can get really sneaky: it can take us back to those times when we felt stressed as a child, and we may regress to childlike responses. When your boss is critical of your work, it might remind you of a parent who never seemed to fully accept you. When your own child has trouble at school, it might remind you of similar situations you experienced. It can add up to make you feel vulnerable, lose perspective and regress to a more childlike state.
One result could be that when you go home and find your spouse forgot to pick up the milk at the store, you don’t think, “Oh, well. We can do without for one day.” Instead, you might actually feel that the household is falling apart while suspecting him or her of not caring enough to do what you asked-and lash out as a result.
Of course, your frustration has next to nothing to do with a jug of milk, but in the moment neither you nor your partner realizes that, so a very minor complaint can spiral into a full-blown fight. If it happens repeatedly, it can cause real damage to a relationship.
The healthy response – one worth practicing – is to identify stress as the monster-in-hiding that it is, and when either person in a relationship seems to be overreacting to minor problems or otherwise regressing to five-year-old behavior, both need to back off. If you are the one feeling stressed out, take time to calm down, think about the current sources of stress in your life, put them in perspective and identify actions you can take to mitigate them. Did your boss really reject your proposal, or just offer some constructive criticism? Is a teacher really out to get your kid, or is she simply stricter than last year’s? This will help bring you back to the present and stop the five-year-old tantrum in its tracks.
Understanding, coping with and mitigating stress are among the most important steps you can take to feel better, enjoy your relationships more and improve your overall health and mood. Then you can keep tantrums where they belong – in the nursery.
It can also help to talk with a trained therapist who can help you work through stress you experienced as a child and make you more aware the next time it rears its ugly ahead. This way, you can react more calmly to future adult stressors that are, unfortunately, inevitable.