Anger & Kids

Rita Preller, LCSW
Baltimore, Maryland

Anger is a normal, human, instinctive reaction to a threatening situation. Its function is to protect us from physical, emotional, psychological harm. Family members can have distorted views of what signifies harmful behavior however, especially if they grew up in family systems where caretakers raged or suffered abuse in silence. Children intuitively know that abuse is harmful. But when they see parents tolerating such behavior children learn to do the same, becoming adult victims in their own lives, resentful and overly sensitive, who ignore the appropriate anger that surfaces in the face of abuse. On the other hand, a child whose caretakers explode can very likely adapt that response when feeling angry particularly if that anger was directed at them. In either case the underlying hurt and pain, feelings of fear, loneliness, unworthiness, of being out of control that these anger responses perpetuate continue to play out. The child born and raised in such an angry environment grows into an adult who marries and has children to whom he introduces his or her own version of these same behaviors, continuing the cycle.

Without intervention or a corrective experience parents from such angry families perpetuate an environment wherein anger is a very scary emotion to acknowledge or an emotion impossible to reign in when felt. Such reactions prompt all family members to deny anger to themselves or others, acting it out indirectly, or explosively express it in a harsh, demeaning and punitive way. Some of the common indirect ways in which this is done include:

Blaming—faulting others through insults, slurs on character, explosive accusations.

Mind reading— attributing negative thoughts to others without verifying them. Catastrophizing—assuming terrible things are happening or will happen before all facts are clearly understood.

– Black and White Thinking—judging others wrong by one single standard (often this takes the verbal form of “You should.”).

– Labeling—generalizing about a person in some unfavorable and unsubstantiated way based on race, color, gender, education, employment, marital status, finances, etc.

– Sideways anger—expressing sarcasm, passive-aggressive behavior, humorous negative remarks, teasing, silence.

No thoughtful adult enters marriage intent on practicing these demeaning, discounting and blaming behaviors. Newlyweds in love have high hopes for a rewarding and mutually satisfying relationship with loving intent to create harmonious, mutually respectful, loving family relationships. Unfortunately the cycle of anger, if left untreated, compels families to act out in just these abusive ways, sadly sabotaging the exact thing they desired. To change these dynamics into healthier patterns that foster understanding and cooperation parents need to take steps in two areas, learning effective communication skills and creating effective parenting policies and procedures.

Developing healthy communication skills is not easy when the cycle of anger has predominated. But with help and practice spouses and parents can learn to interact in more loving ways. To do this requires the ability to stop, step away and separate for a period of time when anger interferes with talking calmly and listening attentively. It requires one to talk about feelings behind the anger and to identify and accept responsibility for one’s part in the conflict. And it requires problem-solving skills to address ways in which anger triggers can be defused.

In angry households quarrelsome and bitter arguments are often the norm between spouses and their children. Instead of safety and mutual feelings of respect, fear and a need to exert control and personal power dominate, offering little opportunity for children to learn emotional tolerance and effective problem solving. It is the parents’ responsibility to look at their part in such acrimonious encounters and to create an environment where their children will experience positive interactions with themselves and others. Parents cannot teach what they have not learned, however, so they must be willing to reach out for help to learn what effective parenting looks like. They must learn the importance of rules and delegation of household responsibilities presented clearly and stated in a calm, impartial manner. Children thrive within firmly and respectfully set limits on their behavior. This kind of structure gives them a sense of safety, teaches them responsibility, gives them opportunities to express anger with no shame and no blame, and fosters a sense of pride in accomplishment. Consequences for behavior are necessary to teach children accountability for their choices. At times children will understandably balk at being held accountable. They have to learn patience and prudence and self control which happens in families where consequences are administered fairly and justly, appropriate to the offense. Consistency is another important hallmark of emotionally healthy families. Consistency in manner, tone and behavior make family life predictable, alleviates tension, and promotes order–all essential in helping children feel safe and able to effectively tolerate and manage emotions. Rewards are also powerfully motivating. “Catching” a child exhibiting positive behavior by offering a smile or an appreciative word or some more tangible reward automatically reinforces the child’s desire to continue and dramatically enhances self-esteem over time. And an atmosphere of open communication encourages children to be honest and straightforward. In this kind of household parents see their children’s’ anger as symptomatic of a problem needing to be addressed. They express interest in learning about the source of the anger, they offer ideas for resolving the issue, and they provide the structure so children can appropriately express their anger. With this kind of support and non-judgmental response children no longer need to “act out” their anger but can grow up recognizing anger is a messenger providing them with important information for their safety and well-being.

Without doubt these are difficult guidelines to follow consistently. Parenting is a constant challenge. And when the cycle of anger permeates lives, creating and sustaining loving relationships with our partners is an equal challenge. This cycle can be changed. With willingness, persistence, and support the cycle of anger can transform into attitudes of tolerance, understanding and self-control. We honor ourselves and our children when we reach out for that help through caring friends, wise family members, professionals, self-help groups, relevant books, and various other community resources. It is hard work but the rewards return three-fold in a family environment rich in mutual respect, peace, harmony and love.

Published by

Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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