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A tantrum is an emotional outburst wherein higher brain functions are unable to stop the emotional expression of the lower (emotional and physical) brain functions. It can be categorized by an irrational fit of crying, screaming, defiance, and a resistance to every attempt at pacification in which even physical control is lost. The person may not stand or sit on their own. Even when the "goal" of the person is met, he or she is not calmed.

Usually tantrums are seen in children of the ages of 3-6 but sometimes 7-9; this is a very clear case of emotional disinhibition caused by immature forebrain development. People who have mental illnesses or neurological conditions such as autism are more prone to tantrums than others, although anyone experiencing forebrain damage -- temporary or permanent -- can suffer from tantrums. The most common ways to temporarily damage the forebrain are to poison it with a mood depressant (such as alcohol) or inhibit its functioning with lack of sleep or brain fatigue. Because a tantrum is most often associated with small children, it is often also colloquially known as a dummy spit, a reference to an unhappy baby spitting out a dummy, or pacifier.

From a psychological standpoint, there may be several goals to a tantrum, which may or may not be the "reward(s)" that are consciously desired by the person. To many outsiders or unskilled people, these goals may seem irrational, unreasonable, inappropriate, criminal, unethical, immoral, or the work of some spiritual force(s). To people familiar with or trained to recognize the psychological causes of such behavior, however, there are clear emotional, cognitive behavioural and biochemical correlates to tantrums.

Since there are chemical correlates to tantrums, some kinds of medication can minimize but not always prevent tantrums. This is especially true for those people with traumatic brain injury, which commonly affects the forebrain. In many situations, the tantrum can be a very effective political and social tool, especially for adults, such as police (Good cop/Bad cop scenarios), custodial officers, childcare workers, teachers, therapists and politicians. Tantrums are such common and powerful communication tools between people that some schools of acting demand them as an essential part of their training.

Other names

  • Dummy spit
  • Tanny spit (Irish)
  • Hissy fit
  • Tizzy
  • Tanty
  • Meltdown

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