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Is There Too Much Anger in Your Family? How Can You Respond?

A brave young daughter reaches out to help her family.

This post is in response to
Anger's Allure: Are You Addicted to Anger?

Too many young people, and adults, grow up in homes in which there is too much anger. What can you do if this is true for your family?

There is lots you can do if the anger frequently leaves you and/or your family members feeling stressed. There is also lots you can do if the anger rises to levels that could be considered abusive, that is, verbally and/or physically violent.

I recently received the following poignant email from a young Psychology Today reader.

"My father is every time angry ... some time his reaction out of control ... beating my mother ..."

Bravo to this young person for reaching out! Your reaching out to me inspired me to write this post to help others whose families have too much anger. Thank you!

Anger is problematic even if it is frequent but never violent. More about options for this kind of situation later in this post. First however, for the many other readers who live in a family where violent anger occurs, here is the response I sent to the above inquiry:

It is important for you to check out the resources for domestic violence victims that are available in your area. Google the name of where you live, plus the words domestic violence help.

If you give these resource phone numbers to your mother, maybe she will be able to get help. It would be a good idea for you also to call these helplines for guidance.

The other thing you can do is to call the police next time your father begins to beat your mother. Most men stop their violence once they know that they may be arrested for it. Beating anyone, including someone in the family, is against the law. It is assault and battery.

You (and/or your mother) can call the police (911) now to find out what they will be able to do to help you when the next incident begins. Sometimes if the police know you already, they will be able to help you that much more when the next incident happens.

Bravo to you for reaching out to me,

Dr. Heitler

Anger creates an emotionally unhealthy family environment. What forms of anger indicate a problem? When does anger in a family become child or domestic abuse?

Any anger that conveys "You are not OK," or "You are not safe," is problematic. All forms of anger become increasingly problematic with frequency and/or intensity.

Anger and violence may be directed against a partner and/or against children. Both are problematic.

Increases in anger intensity tend to develop gradually over time.

  • First may come too-frequent anger with too much telling others what to do, too much insistence that the victim did something wrong, too much blame for problems, too much criticism. (emotional toxicity)
  • Then louder yelling, name-calling, and maybe cursing. (verbal abuse)
  • Then escalation into harming things and eventually people (physical abuse): Throwing things, like picking up a nearby book and heaving it against a wall. Grabbing the victim, and maybe shaking him/her or pushing. Hitting, punching, kicking, hitting with a belt or other object. Grabbing the neck and choking the victim. Then killing.

Do any of these various levels of anger—emotional toxicity, verbal abuse, and eventually physical violence—occur in your family?

Alas, all too many victims (men, women and/or children) cope by minimizing how out-of-bounds this behavior is.

  • "Oh, he's just under stress."
  • Or, "all mothers yell at and hit their kids."
  • Or, "If I just can do what s/he wants me to do, the anger and violence will stop."
  • And all too often, "Some of the times s/he is so loving. I can't leave because I love him/her so much when s/he is being nice to me."
  • And lastly, "What would I do without him/her?" I can't make it on my own."

If you hear yourself saying any versions of these statements to yourself, odds are that you are "in denial" about the excessive anger, that is, calming yourself by telling yourself that the problem is not really a problem.

What can you do if there is too much anger in your family?

A first step might be to start an anger journal. A journal recording the instances of anger in your household over a period of one or several days can increase your clarity about the anger patterns: when it occurs, from whom, in response to what triggers, and to gain what ends.

If the anger is coming from you, learn to exit asap from any situation that triggers even the beginnings of angry responses. Calm down, and then return to re-address the situation in a friendly talking voice. Look to solve the problem instead of to criticize or blame anyone.

If the anger comes from someone else in the family, exit the situation also. Change the topic, or leave the room for a few minutes. Explain that you will be glad to discuss the situation once both of you can talk calmly. Be crystal clear that you only interact in cooperative voice tones.

Anger is a stop sign. Stop to recognize that the anger is warning you that there is a problem. Do not proceed in the conversation however until the coast is clear, that is, until talking cooperatively, in quiet voices, toward the goal of solving the problem will be possible.

My website has additional anger-control suggestions, with many more explanations and remedies in the book it is based on, Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More.

Many people who do too much anger benefit also from anger management courses and from therapy.

If the anger is directed at children, a parenting course can prove helpful. Parents who know how to help their children to do what needs to be done without using anger generally are parents who have more effective parenting techniques. This blog post teaches some of my favorite ways to use play to get kids to behave.

The risk of excessive anger rises if an adult had been treated angrily by his or her own parents or grew up in a family where the parents fought with each other. In these cases, individual and/or family therapy may prove helpful so you can pull the anger out at its roots.

In fact, even lower-intensity but excessively frequent anger is too much anger.

People thrive when they feel safe. Anger conveys threat. People who express their concerns in angry voice tones—and especially if they then escalate to barking orders, blaming, and criticizing instead of solving problems—create anxiety for everyone in the household, including themselves. Everyone loses.

People thrive in a culture of calm, enthusiasm, affection, appreciation, and cooperative talking in response to the differences and dilemmas that inevitably emerge from time to time in family life.

Do not wait for the anger to escalate if your household has too frequent or intense anger. Your safety and the safety of your family are primary. Recognize the early signs, take measures to change, and if changing on your own is not enough, get professional help.

More from Susan Heitler Ph.D.
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