Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and the Anger Prone Parent

If parents are anger prone they can change their ways

It's easy to get angry at one's child during adolescence. There are so many aggravations and offenses that arise - increased messiness to live with, endless arguments, delayed compliance, lack of consideration, testing of limits, challenging authority, lying about what's going on, "borrowing" without asking, breaking promises and rules, to name a few.

In response to these incidents is when parental anger often comes into play. Anger is an emotion that is sensitive to violations of what one believes should or should not happen and that energizes an expressive, protective, or corrective response to address what feels hurtful, wrong, unfair, or unjust.

Anger can prompt parents to impose a disciplinary consequence to right the situation. Punishment— often the option of angry choice—can be a mistake. In general, while applying consequences for misbehavior may be appropriate, and declaring angry feelings is fine, parents should never punish in anger for three reasons.

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First because you are likely to over-punish by letting emotion do your thinking for you, causing you to over-punish: "You're grounded for a year!" Always take time to think before you punish, making it a rational and not an emotional decision. Waiting for you to calm down, collect your thoughts, and make up your mind about a consequence becomes part of the punishment your teenager has to endure.

Second, after recovering your emotional sobriety, you will have to modify or retract a disciplinary decision that on reflection seems too extreme, thereby showing that you didn't mean what you said. Or, in the heat of the angry moment, you may have inflicted verbal or physical injury. Now you regret words or actions that cannot be recalled and may be long remembered.

And third, intense anger will get in the way of the lesson you are trying to teach when the teenager believes you are only punishing because of being angry, not in response to what she has done. When the emotion has become the message, the reason for the message can be lost.

Facing more conduct violations during adolescence is par for the parenting course. However, there are some parents—often of the fearful, strong-willed, or authoritarian kind—who get too angry too often, usually to harmful effect. This is the mother or father who is already anger prone in general; he/seh is more likely to emotionally overreact when some unwelcome adolescent behavior occurs.

Although anger, like all emotions, is a very good informant, it can be a very bad advisor by encouraging behavior that only makes anger worse. Losing one's temper doesn't relieve anger; it intensifies it until the intensity finally wears down. And unloading parental anger on the teenager only loads that young person up with more anger in response. "I hate it when you yell at me!"

So how do you tell if you are an anger prone parent? Consider five characteristics.

You have a high need for control and get angry when dominance is challenged or lost, or you use anger to get your way. "I will be in charge; you will do what I say!"

You are highly judgmental, feeling easily offended when others don't meet your standards or don't do things as you like - what you believe is best or proper. "I am correct; my way is the right way!"

You take personally what is not personally meant, assuming accidental slights or offenses were deliberate when that was not the case. "You did that on purpose; you were out to get me!"

You use anger as an outlet to express built-up irritation and stress. "I've had enough; this is too much to take!"

You hold onto past grievances, storing up resentments that can be easily inflamed when a similar injury occurs. "This is just like before; I am being mistreated again!"

These characteristics are not immutable. With independent effort they can be modified. Or, with help in counseling and therapy, parents can learn to step back from the precipice of explosive anger like overreactions, fits of temper, or road rage by recalibrating their emotional set points.

For example they can practice being less controlling, being less judgmental, and being less ready to take affronts and irritations personally. They can process injuries and frustrations as they arise, and they can be more willing to forsake resentment and let old wrongs and grievances go. (Here the Alcoholics Anonymous aphorism comes to mind: "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.")

Often with anger prone parents, anger is not primarily what the outburst is about. Anger is often a cover feeling or diversion meant to protect what is really emotionally going on. "Besides anger, what else am I feeling?" is a useful question to ask oneself because anger can mask vulnerable feelings that are more risky to express like fear, sadness, pain, frustration, disappointment, or failure, for example.

So on reflection after a regrettable outburst of anger at their teenager over some minor offense, the parent explains themselves. "When I feel out of control and become scared, I get angry." Then he talks about his fears. "When I have a loss and feel sad, I get angry." Then she talks about her sadness. "When I get hurt I feel attacked, I get angry." Then he talks about his pain. "When I get blocked and don't get what I want, I get angry." Then she talks about her frustration. "When I don't get what I was looking forward to, I get angry." Then he talks about his feeling let down. "When I try to do right and don't, I get angry." Then she talks about her sense of failure.

And now the adolescent is more open to hear what is emotionally going on in the parent because that accusatory, aggressive, and protective feeling, anger, has been set aside to let more sensitive experience show.

In counseling anger prone parents it can be helpful to point out that people don't get angry about what is not important to them. Anger is always about something that matters, hence the question: "What is it that really matters to you about what your teenager did?"

The response may be, "I got angry because he lied to me and I feel I can't trust him." Then, I suggest, set your anger aside and talk about how being able to trust him is very important to you. Or the response may be, "I got angry because she got drunk and could have been hurt." Then, I suggest, set your anger aside and talk about how her safety is your uppermost concern.

For adolescents, it's easier to hear about what matters to the parent than to hear about what is the matter with them.

Finally, there are some anger prone parents who learned the trait from growing up around a parent who was this way. So in counseling, the father despairs over reacting how he hoped he never would. "I treated my son just like my dad always did with me!" This is when I explain that all is not lost, that he is not fated by family history to have to act this way. It's true that he was given a bad model for managing anger, but it's also true that his dad gave him a very good model to follow as well. How is this contradiction so?

Every parent gives every child two models to follow not one - how to be and how not to be. "You were given great model for how NOT to manage anger by your dad. So let's talk about how you would like to manage your own anger differently instead, and then get you started practicing that. Step one, is telling your son about how you learned to explode so easily, so harmfully, and so regretfully. Then explain you plan to work at changing how you act."

For more parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Also my book, "Stop the Screaming." Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Why Single Parents can Parent Adolescents Well

 

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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