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Why Parents Get Angry

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"My child gets me so mad!"

"My child makes me so angry!"

"My child made me lose my temper!"

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. How the child acts is up to the child. How the parent chooses to feel in response is up to the parent. When parents give up responsibility for their emotional state by blaming their child for causing it, they give that child far too much power. Believing that the child is in charge of their feelings, parents now get really angry with the child for "controlling" their emotions. The law of psychological responsibility is simply this: Each individual (and no one else) decides how he or she is going to feel, think, and act.

"So why would parents decide to feel angry?" The answer is in the question. Anger is a feeling, and like all emotions it is functional. Emotions operate like an early awareness system. They catch and direct our attention to something important going on in our psychological world. Emotions are informants. Positively experienced emotions bring welcome news. Joy is about fulfillment. Pride is about accomplishment. Gratitude is about appreciation.

Negatively experienced emotions bring undesirable news. Fear is about danger to our person. Frustration is about blockage of our efforts. And anger is about violations to our wellbeing. What kind of violations?

"This is wrong!"

"This is unfair!"

"I shouldn't be treated this way!"

At this point, having directed our attention to the violation, anger empowers an expressive, protective, or corrective response. "Don't put me down with sarcasm by calling me a demeaning name. As your parent, it hurts me when you do. I don't speak to you that way, and I don't want to be spoken to that way again."

So being able to feel anger and use anger to patrol personal wellbeing is important. People who can't get angry often end up accepting violations to their costs. Many victims of family abuse simply adjust to verbal threat or physical violence and accept mistreatment as an unhappy fact of life. They learn to deny its emotional impact, to rationalize its harm, to shut about its occurrence, and to avoid upsetting the abuser. Adults who learn these survival skills as children often end up marrying into abusive relationships not because they want to, but because unconsciously the role of the abused feels comfortably familiar.

But what about parents who are anger prone? What about parents who are extremely susceptible to violations and thus seem to be angry most of the time? What can they do to reduce this readiness to take offense? First, consider five common kinds of violations that can arouse anger.

1) Parents who have a HIGH NEED TO CONTROL will often get mad when they don't get their way or don't get what they want right away.

2) Parents who are HIGHLY JUDGMENTAL will often get mad when others contradict their opinions or don't do things the "right" way.

3) Parents who have a HIGH SENSITIVITY TO HURT will often get mad when they take slights or offenses personally that were not personally meant.

4) Parents who have a HIGH NEED FOR GRIEVANCE will often get mad when they use being wronged to justify nursing a grudge to sustain resentment.

5) Parents who have a HIGH NEED TO INTIMIDATE will often get mad when they want to bully other people with their anger.

Parents who are high in one or more these categories tend to be anger prone, and can reduce this susceptibility by regularly repeating to themselves corrective messages.

1) To be less controlling, practice saying: "To be okay, I don't have to have everything go my way."

2) To be less judgmental, practice saying: "I don't have to be right about everything or have to have everything done "right."

3) To be less sensitive to hurt, practice saying: "Just because I don't like how someone acts doesn't mean that person is out to get me."

4) To be less inclined to hold on to grievance, practice saying that AA piece of wisdom: "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

5) To be less inclined to intimidate, practice saying: "Pushing other people around with fear of my anger only pushes their love for me away."

Anger is a good servant, but a bad master. If you are anger prone, practice reducing your susceptibility to anger. People who think with their feelings, particularly their feelings of anger, do so to their own and other people's costs. If you feel anger, delay action until you have had time to think. Model the use of anger that you want your children to learn from your example, declaring it in a non-abusive manner to address some violation of your wellbeing that has occurred.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. 2003. For permission to use this Psychological Update, contact the author.
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