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Why Parents Really Get Angry at Their Kids

They're supposed to make us feel inadequate.

Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock
Source: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

Those same little creatures who look like angels when they sleep can, without a moment's notice, cause headaches, jangled nerves, strained muscles, aching bones, and overloaded emotional circuits.

But there's one thing that even the most exuberant or obstinate of children cannot do: They can't make us angry.

To be sure, our children can make us feel inadequate as parents. But they can only seem to make us angry—and want to punish them—when we confuse feelings of inadequacy with failure. Most of our anger at our children manifests when we punish them for reminding us that we sometimes feel like failures as parents.

Feelings of Inadequacy Are Motivators

Before we know how to do anything, we feel inadequate doing it. The discomfort of feeling inadequate is an integral part of our motivation to learn how to perform the task at hand. And few things are more satisfying than replacing feelings of inadequacy with a sense of competence or mastery. This is true of everything important that we learn to do, from reading and writing, to playing a sport, driving a car, or making love.

But there are few areas in which the motivational force of feeling inadequate is more important than in parenting. No child comes with a manual, and every child is unique. Feelings of inadequacy occur when we are jarred out of preconceived notions of what children need, what they should be like, or how they ought to respond to us.

The only thing that relieves the sense of inadequacy as a parent is focus on the individual needs of each child as separate from our ideas and feelings. Feelings of inadequacy force us to stop seeing the child as a source of emotion for us and, instead, allow the needs of the child to teach us to be good parents of that unique child. Anger occurs when we blame children for doing their part in the interaction—namely, making us feel inadequate.

Though it is a factor in all distressed parent-child interactions, misinterpreting feelings of inadequacy can take on a tragic dimension. For some people, a crying baby becomes a signal not of the child's needs but of the parent's abject failure. The inability to comfort a distressed baby, or at least to stop the crying, is the leading cause of child abuse, shaken-baby syndrome, and infanticide.

Why Anger Is a Problem in Families

An automatic response triggered whenever we feel threatened, anger is the most powerful of all emotional experiences. The only emotion that activates every muscle group and organ of the body, anger exists to mobilize the instinctual fight-or-flight response meant to protect us from predators. Of course, our children are not predators. Applying this survival-level fight or flight response to everyday problems of family life is like using a rock to turn off a lamp or a tank to repair a computer.

Is anyone really stupid enough to turn off a lamp with a rock? When angry, everybody is that stupid.

Anger has nothing to do with intelligence; it has everything to do with how vulnerable we feel. Psychological vulnerability depends a lot on how you feel about yourself. When genuine self-value (as opposed to inflated ego) is low, anything can make you irritable or angry. When self-value is high, the insults and frustrations of life just roll off your back.

For instance, if you've had a bad day, and you're feeling a little guilty, maybe even a little like a loser—or you're just feeling disregarded or devalued, you might come home to find your kid's shoes in the middle of the floor and think, "That lazy, selfish, inconsiderate little brat!"

Then, too, you can come home after a great day, feeling fine about yourself, see the same shoes in the middle of the floor, and think, "Oh, that's just Jimmy," and not think twice about it.

The difference in your reaction to the child's behavior lies entirely within you and depends completely on how you feel about yourself. In the first case, the child's behavior seems to diminish your sense of self, and in anger you punish him for doing it to you. In the second instance, the child's behavior does not diminish your sense of personal importance, value, power, or lovability. So there is no need for anger. You don't need a hammer to solve the problem of the shoes in the middle of the floor. Rather, the problem to be solved is how to teach the child to be more considerate; you won't do that by humiliating or scaring him with anger. His reaction to humiliation and fear will be the same as yours—an inability to see the other person's perspective, an overwhelming urge to blame, and an impulse for retaliation or punishment. Anger comes with two motivations—avoid or attack.

Can you think of a family problem that avoidance or attack will help?

Modeling Anger Regulation for Children

I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but if you haven't already noticed, your children do not learn emotional regulation from what you tell them. They learn by watching you. Actually, all mammals learn through a process called modeling, wherein the juveniles mimic the adults.

Although their intellectual maturity is far less advanced than that of their parents, children experience anger for the same reasons—mostly to defend the sense of self from the pain of temporary diminishment. At the moment of anger, both children and adults feel bad about themselves. And making angry people feel worse about themselves will only make matters worse.

Children must learn to restore their sense of core value under stress. This means holding onto self-value when hurt or displeased, which helps them regulate the impulse for retaliation when they are angry. They will only learn this invaluable life skill by watching their parents.

Compassionate Parenting.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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