Grownups sometimes act like children. This is great when they’re playing with their kids – it can make for a rollicking good time. However, it’s not at all great when the child-like behavior consists of having tantrums, slamming doors, calling names, making mean faces or otherwise acting like an out-of-control pre-schooler. While such behavior in a youngster is completely unacceptable and requires remediation, it is so much worse when it occurs in a parent. It upsets the whole household – disturbing, frightening and sometimes even physically harming family members. Despite the harm that parental anger can cause, it is a fact that normal parents get mad. What can parents do, then, to minimize the harmful effects of their own rage, irritation, resentment and other forms of anger?
Anger in the Home
Anger, itself, is a feeling – an emotion. It is experienced physically as a tightening of muscles, a holding of breath and/or a rush of adrenalin. Anger is not a behavior. A person behaves a certain way when angry. The behavior that occurs depends on the person’s inborn nature, upbringing, education, training and personal development. Some people choose to “act out” their anger, actually demonstrating what they are experiencing inside. They are so upset that they feel like screaming – and they do. They are so upset that they feel like kicking someone or something – and they do. They are so upset that they feel like saying terrible things – and they do.
Other people choose to put a lid on their anger and withdraw until the mood passes. They, too, are so upset that they feel like screaming – but they don’t. They, too, feel like kicking, throwing or smashing something or someone – but they don’t. They feel like saying all sorts of terrible things but they refrain. Instead, they remove themselves from the scene that is triggering all the upset and take themselves to a place where they can let the energy move through and out of their body and mind. If knowledgeable and skilled, they may even speed that process along by using a technique or strategy that helps them to rapidly process their anger and completely resolve it. Otherwise, they may do the best they can on their own and finish the job up later with the help of the offending party and/or a third party.
Consequences of Parental Anger
Many people fall somewhere in the middle of these two styles – showing some anger and also showing some restraint. Obviously, showing less anger will cause less damage to all concerned. However, it is unfortunately true that ANY amount of visible and/or audible anger causes SOME amount of harm. Minor anger causes temporary hurt, moderate anger has stronger negative effects on children and intense anger tends to have intensely negative effects. We wish it wasn’t so because, as I suggested earlier, we all get mad sometimes. We wish that we could “get away” with expressing some of that anger since it often feels so good to move it through our body, our mouth and our muscles. Unfortunately, when a person expresses rage, someone else experiences abuse (mistreatment, disrespect, emotional and/or physical harm). In other words, it is as if the angry person spews out his or her venom, literally vomiting bad energy onto whoever he or she is yelling at. The recipient of the anger feels soiled and damaged. Frequent exposure to this sort of toxic energy actually damages developing human beings.
The Parental Model
In addition, parental expression of anger is also a teaching tool. Adults show their kids how anger is expressed. Screamers all too often raise screamers (by showing their kids a destructive technique) and always leave their children deprived of a healthy model (by failing to show them a constructive way to negotiate strong emotion). Although a child can overcome his parents’ anger style, it is a challenge we don’t really want to present to our youngsters. Parental impulsiveness, lack of maturity, lack of skill and lack of self-control not only hurts children in the moment, it also hurts them for a lifetime as they either mimic the destructive behavior in their own families or they struggle against its effects inside themselves.
Choosing Healthy Ways to Express Angry Feelings
Feelings and behaviors are two different things. We will all feel angry at times because it is one of the emotions that is there for our own protection. However, none of us needs to act badly when we’re angry. We can tell a spouse or child that we are upset; there is no need to shout. We can impose negative consequences on children; there is no need for insult or other hurtful words or actions. We can always be mindful of our own dignity and the dignity of others even when we’re frustrated, hurt, insulted, exhausted, troubled or otherwise emotionally challenged. But we can’t choose these healthy communication tools while adrenalin – the fight-or-flight chemical – is coursing through our brains and body.
The trick, then, is to find effective ways to turn off anger CHEMISTRY so that rational and healthy choices can be made in the moment. The calm brain can make good choices, but the agitated brain just reacts however it wants to in the moment, without regard to the long term consequences of those actions.
The ability to turn off the chemistry of anger is a learned skill. It involves any technique that calms the body down. Slowing the breathing is one such technique. When a parent is feeling upset, he or she can purposely start to breathe more slowly and evenly. It will take a number of minutes before anger chemistry stops flowing, so patience is required. Leaving the conversation, drinking a tall glass of water, walking around the block – all these activities can help the brain recover. But the most valuable action even after one has left the conversation, is to slow the breathing more and more. The heart will also slow down, the muscles will relax and the brain will finally work again!
Removing feelings of helplessness is another important tool to help prevent and reduce anger. Parenting books, anger management books, classes,online resources, counseling, social support, spiritual guidance and a host of other resources are available to help provide tools, options and techniques to handle complex parenting situations. Being prepared and having a clear philosophy in advance can definitely help prevent rage attacks. If someone has tried all of these approaches and still gets angry easily, then adding several physical tools can help too: daily exercise, herbs, acupuncture, homeopathy, Bach Flower Therapy, essential oils and psychotropic medications can all help soothe the easily agitated psyche.
Anyone who cares enough about his or her family to learn how to eradicate anger-induced bad behavior can succeed. We can all be well-behaved parents – if we really want to be.