Adults acting like toddlers. Is this the new normal?

We have all seen countless examples of adults acting like toddlers recently. They throw temper tantrums on airplanes, in grocery stores, restaurants and elsewhere over COVID requirements or other matters. Has this behavior become the new normal? Customer service representatives have horror stories to report, as they have become the target of tantrums that turn disrespectful and even violent.

Several well-established psychological theories inform us that these tantrums are expected. They may actually get worse in upcoming weeks too. So, fasten your seatbelts as turbulence associated with adults acting badly is likely to get worse rather than better.  Why?

• The frustration-aggression theory tells us that when people are chronically frustrated and then experience stressors, aggression will follow. Certainly, our communities have experienced high levels of chronic frustration as we cope with a seemingly endless global pandemic among other challenges such as discrimination, travel disruptions, political divisiveness, incivility and economic hardships. Frustration is especially high now since as soon as we expected to see the end of the pandemic, a new variant pops up, forcing us to retreat into further restrictions and a longer pandemic timeframe. We seem to take three steps forward and two steps backward with periodic moments of hope followed by disappointing despair.

• Observational learning theory predicts that when we see high-profile models behave in a particular way that is reinforced, others will follow suit and behave in a similar manner. High-profile politicians, as well as celebrities, acting like spoiled toddlers results in other incidents of people acting in the same disturbing way. This is especially true when they who act so badly are reinforced getting away with their actions without consequences. If they are allowed to have tantrums, others will feel justified in their bad behavior. Then this behavior becomes the new normal.

Stress in America has never been higher, and research conducted regularly by the American Psychological Association has investigated this phenomenon, finding that stress levels are currently through the roof. The surgeon general released a mental health advisory a few weeks ago highlighting the tsunami of anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance abuse that have skyrocketed, especially among youth. With the omicron variant sweeping the country, stress, frustration and bad behavior is likely to get worse. We ought to prepare for it.

So what can we do? While there are no simple answers, there are some things that all of us can do to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. If we are aware of these disturbing trends, we can all remind ourselves that we are potentially vulnerable to turning into temper-tantrum toddlers if conditions are right. We might try to avoid these stressful encounters as much as possible as well. Rather than confronting or escalating these incidents, we can try to approach others by acknowledging their upset, yet encouraging civil and even gracious behavior. Seeing others as sacred or as brothers and sisters in distress might go a long way. People often lose their anger intensity when they are approached with compassion and respect validating their frustrations but helping direct them to productive and face-saving resolutions. Additionally, one superpower that we all have is kindness. Kindness goes a long way to defuse stressful situations when expressed with respect and compassion, even under difficult circumstances, guiding the adult acting like a toddler to conflict resolution. When in doubt, be kind. It might help to deescalate a potentially dangerously dramatic incident.

Thomas G. Plante is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.

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