In my book and workbook called The Power of Two, I teach the skills that enable couples to enjoy a strong and loving marriage. While I knew the topic was important as I was writing, I had not thought about what it's like for kids whose parents have the opposite, with anger instead of harmony in the home, and especially for kids whose parents often turn their anger onto them.
What It's Like for Kids of Angry Parents
A teenage reader, let's call her Liz, recently wrote to me a poignant description of her home situation. Liz has given me permission to share her note with my readers. I asked for this permission so that more people will understand the plight of kids like her, her sister and brother, and all too many other kids and teens.
Below Liz's letter, I offer my thoughts on what can be done for these children.
Dear Dr. Heitler,
I am 16 years old and I have two siblings. We Iive in a house with who I believe is a BPD mother. I don’t have many options for I am a minor. I read your article titled “When Your Mother Has a Borderline Personality” and it did give me some feedback, but I feel as if I deeply need more. She will have these moments of angry outbursts and then happy joyful moments.
I don't know where to start...
My parents are divorced supposedly because my father had cheated on my mom. My dad says he was just so tired of her constant outrage. When I was younger I didn't know which story to believe or which one was true.
Although I still don't know the exact cause for their divorce, I have learned that my mom was a problem. Till this day, I sadly remember all the extreme fights they would go through, as if it was just yesterday.
Now that I'm older I feel bad for my siblings, my dad, and myself.
My mom sometimes apologizes abruptly and looks for forgiveness after she finishes her rage. But I know that she will rage again.
I still remember one day when she told me to feed the dog. I believe I was in 3rd grade. But anyway, I went to go get the dog food to pour into the bowl. Since it was dark outside and the bowl was outside, I spilled the dog food next to the bowl, not inside it. My mother started yelling at me, calling me stupid. She slapped me across my face. My dad defended me and stood up to her like I had never seen.
Things got worse. My mother had abandonment issues with my dad. She would constantly call him to make sure who he was with, what he was doing, etc. He tried and tried to stay and fix things. They even went to therapy but when my mom got there she was getting mad at my dad telling him, "Why would you tell him everything?" referring to the therapist.
Well in the end we ended up moving to our hometown, my mom choosing to leave from our house (in another state) on his birthday. I didn't want to leave. I loved my dad. My siblings and I fell into a depression while still living in Nevada. My mom did as well, because my dad finally stood up and told her, "If you kick me out one more time, I'm not going to forgive you once you apologize like you always do."
Still, in her rage, my mom kicked him out due to her assumptions of the cheating scandal and abandonment issues.
My father couldn't take it anymore. He was drained out. He had to save himself in a way. I'm not saying he's perfect because he isn't. He's made major mistakes as well, but now it's just my two siblings and I tied up in her illness.
We do see my dad often—every six weeks when he comes to visit from where he lives—but it's not enough time to get away from all the madness. He knows how she is and tries to give us feedback, but that's easy for him to do since he just left the problem. We're there stuck living a madness every single day.
My brother who is 12 years old believes there is nothing wrong with my mom, that she should be mad. Her words get into his mind. Since he's young, of course he believes everything his mom puts into his mind.
Then there's my sister. She's one year younger than me. She understands me more. She knows that the way my mom acts is not okay. She gets sad because my mom gets so mad at her so easily, without a good enough reason. Well, she gets mad at all of us for not good enough reasons all the time. Me and my sister feel so trapped. We can get very sad at times.
When we go with my dad for a good majority of the summer we are always scared to answer my mom's calls because every time we do she is always mad that we don't call her everyday. She starts calling us horrible names in Spanish and verbally abuses us. Even after so many miles away we are still so scared of receiving a phone call of hers.
She barely lets us hang out with our friends—she believes they are all bad people and that she can't trust any of them.
I love her eternally—but for me, her love directed to us seems conditional due to how she acts towards us. At times, we can all be so happy; it feels as if her illness can't be real. She can't have it—but then after a while it kicks back in and reality sparks.
I don't know how to escape this poison. I don't want to end up like my mom. I love her but this is not healthy for any of us.
Of course I did not list everything that has occurred but this is a large portion.
I don't want to cry in my room or in the bathroom/shower any more.
Last weekend I had to go to a retreat on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for my church since I'm getting confirmed soon. This sounds sad, but I was happy that I wasn't going to be home. I did not want to be home.
A Clinical Perspective on Having an Angry Parent
The teenager's mother appears, in my view, to have a classic case of borderline personality disorder. The central feature of a borderline diagnosis is overly strong emotional reactions. People with this diagnosis struggle with a hyper-reactive amygdala, the part of the brain that controls the frequency and intensity of emotional responses.
Though some individuals with borderline issues mainly experience anxiety and depression, many (if not most) who get this diagnosis have frequent episodes of raging. At its core, therefore, BPD appears as an anger disorder.
Anger seldom arises in a vacuum. Rather, it gets triggered by someone or something that has happened, and then directed toward a specific target. In a two-parent family, the anger may get directed toward the spouse and/or toward the children. When kids live with a solo parent, however, if the parent rages, the children will tend to be the main targets.
As Liz so wisely observes, younger children assume that their parent knows best, and that they must have done something terrible, or be terrible kids, to have aroused the parent's wrath. They believe that the painful name-calling and accusations that a raging parent screams at them must be valid. As Liz also describes, even a mature teen like herself still finds her parent's rages upsetting and frightening.
Strong emotions typically give rise to a narcissistic inability to hear others' concerns. Like anyone who is experiencing strong anger, when people with borderline patterns feel angry, they tend to think that what they want is holy and what others want is irrelevant. People with borderline personalities often fall into the trap of this non-listening error. They feel totally justified in their fury because they see the situation only from their point of view.
At the same time, narcissistic individuals believe that "It's all about me." That belief leads to personalizing—that is, taking personally, as an action intended to hurt them, whatever occurs that they dislike. Liz's mother may have personalized Liz's having spilled dog food, assuming that the mistake was an act intended to hurt her. Rage at Liz was the result, in this case, of a mother's narcissistic way of viewing the world. This intertwining of borderline emotional hyper-reactivity and narcissistic functioning is common. The two syndromes often co-occur.
In addition, in response to their strong emotions of fear and anger, people with these diagnoses can easily fall prey to paranoia—that is, to a belief that harm is being done to them in some way. Liz's mom shows paranoid tendencies in her fears about the dad getting involved with other women and her misreadings of her children's friendships.
At the same time, Liz expresses her painful awareness that her mom does have a second side. Like many individuals with BPD, narcissism, and excessive anger, she can be kind, fun, loving, smart, and even very successful in public life. At home, however, the anger erupts. Her mom is like the girl in the nursery rhyme: A "girl with a curl, right in the middle of her forehead; when she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid."
While the nursery rhyme describes a little girl, Liz's mother is a grownup—a grownup with responsibility for raising children and yet without the emotional evenness to provide them with a safe and consistently nurturing home. The result: a confusing, painful and emotionally unhealthy home that can do major emotional damage to the children raised within it.
What Can Be Done for Children Living with an Angry Parent?
For now, I want at least to mention five things:
First , I want to say bravo to you, Liz, for reaching out for help, for writing about your situation so clearly, and for the insights that you have shared that will help others. As the general public, and also therapy professionals, become increasingly aware of the harm that parents with anger disorders do to their children, help will eventually be forthcoming.
And to Liz and to all who read this column, be sure to read the comments (below) that readers of this article have been writing. They suggest further options for kids, and particularly for teenagers, who are living with an angry parent.
Second , I would like to ask the writers of the DSM to add anger to anxiety and depression as a diagnosable disorder.
Third , I would like to encourage anyone with an anger disorder, such as Liz's mom has, to please get professional help. My heart goes out to you, as you clearly suffer greatly. You will become happier, and you will be able to have a much more positive impact on your children as well, as you find ways to prevent the anger outbursts. Anger management classes may help, for starters. Also, energy therapists who do techniques like Body Code and Emotion Code may be able to turn off the anger tendency altogether.
Fourth , if you know any child or teenager trapped in a family with an abusively angry parent, reach out to them. A little kindness can go a long way. It conveys to the child that maybe he or she is an okay person, and that someone does seem to like them and is consistently nice to them. Even if you never discuss the parent's anger with the child, your kindness can help.
If an occasion does arise where you feel that you can talk about the anger, do share your view that the parent has an anger problem that causes mean and untrue words to come out. Emphasize that these words do not accurately describe the child. Maybe even ask the child to list the unkind words that the parent says in anger so that you can explicitly clarify that the words are untrue. Add that you like the parent, and that at the same time, the anger is like an illness that the parent, as well as the child, suffers from. This dose of reality can help a child enormously.
Consider also, if the situation appears serious, contacting your local social services. In many communities, the folks in charge of investigating child abuse and neglect are quite responsive. Generally, they will keep confidential the name of the person who asked them to check out a potentially abusive parenting situation.
Fifth and finally, are you a therapy professional who works with men or women who have an anger disorder and who are parents? If so, do be sure that you ask explicitly whether your client sometimes levies his or her anger at the children.
As Liz so clearly describes, leaving children to cope on their own with an angry parent who erupts into rages is unrealistic and unfair. Children in these circumstances are trapped with few or no options. Individual therapy professionals who work with such adults have an ethical responsibility to make sure that the children of these clients are getting the help that they need.
Addenda: What Can Kids Do Themselves?
The following paragraphs were submitted as a comment to this article. There's so much good advice here, I'm adding it as an addenda to the main article.
More Thoughts From an Emotional Abuse Survivor...
Submitted by Adult Severely Emotionally Abused by Mother on July 18, 2018 - 12:50pm
Your story hits close to home. I grew up in a highly dysfunctional, middle class home. Both my parents experienced severe child abuse. My mother has Narcissistic Personality Disorder; my father Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with Psychotic Breaks. My brother has Malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a history of process addictions, and alcohol dependency. I'm the family scapegoat; my brother is the Golden Child Who Could Do No Wrong. Both parents lack any sort of insight into their own behaviors and look to blame others for problems of their own doing. My mother is extremely verbally abusive.
The first thing I would recommend you do is: stay away from your mother as long as possible. This means:
- Get involved in after school activities—even ones you're only mildly interested in—so that you don't have to go home. The best activities are ones where you are going to do something on the weekends, such as Outing Club, Band, sports or theater. You don't have to be an athlete, a musician, or a thespian to join these activities. The sports teams and marching band all need student support staff (called student team managers). The theater club needs lots of behind the scenes crew to run.
- If you are of age, consider getting a part-time job. Again, this gives you a good reason for not being home. It's hard for Mom to argue when you tell her that you took the job so that you could start saving for college. (Be aware that taking a part-time job can interfere with your ability to get your schoolwork done and your participation in after-school activities. Your schoolwork and your school-sponsored after-school activities should come before working.)
- Get a volunteer job at a non-profit near you. I've cooked at a soup kitchen (lots of fun), helped run a fundraiser (very interesting), been a docent at a small museum, etc. This is a way to get work-related experience (that you might be able to parlay into paid work) and it looks great on your college application. Again, the goal is for you to have good reason not to be stuck home with your personality disordered mother longer than you absolutely have to. When I applied to work as a volunteer, I let them know that I was going to need help with transportation. Having an adult who is part of the organization pick me up and drop me off made a big difference.
Secondly, I would strongly advise you to protect your privacy as much as possible. Keep records of your mother's abuse. Don't rely on your memory. This includes:
- Do not let your mother see your academic calendar. Both my crazy parents would pick fights with me hours before I had to take a big test. My parents sabotaged my SAT exam—I had to nullify my test scores and retake. I arranged for a sleepover the night before the test and went with a friend. I aced the exam.
- Keep records of what your mother is doing. You want to use a sewn notebook or a notebook with numbered pages. DO NOT KEEP THIS NOTEBOOK IN YOUR MOTHER'S HOUSE—she will use it against you. Whenever my mother went nutty, I wrote what happened down and made copies of it. I gave one copy (in a sealed envelope) to a friend for safekeeping. I buried a document safe in a park and stashed a copy there. If your father is cool, I would ask if you could keep your notebook in a document safe at his place, where only you have the key. This is NOT a diary—this is documentation you might have to show to a judge or social worker. So, you want to write it Newspaper Style—Who, What, When, Where, How and Why. Believe me, when it comes time to file a motion to allow you to live full time with your father and have your mother's parental rights terminated, this journal will make it A LOT easier for the judge to do what you want to do.
- Ask your dad to put you on his cell phone plan. Keep your cell phone and your journal on your person at all times or locked up in a document safe. You absolutely positively don't want your mother getting ahold of it.
I agree with Kate's skepticism about Child Protective Services (or whatever they call it where you live). The social workers care more about uniting families than doing what's truly in the best interest of the child. They're set up to handle children who have been physically neglected, physically abused, or sexually abused. They are not set up to help children who are being very badly emotionally abused. However, if you have a journal showing that your mother is REALLY out-of-control over an extended period of time, they MIGHT be able to help. Understand that if you call CPS on your mother and you are returned to her care, she probably will retaliate and it will be very sneaky and nasty.
Get a mentor. A mentor is an adult who has similar interests as you, someone you can just be with. Your school might (or might not) have such a program.
For a young person in your situation, mental health counseling really is a crap shoot. In all likelihood, you'll have to use your parent's health insurance to get it. This means that the parent who provides you with health insurance will know that you are seeing someone and will be paying for it. Unfortunately, many mental health professionals are h*llbent on keeping the family together, even if that means warping your mind so that you don't trigger off your crazy mother. If your mother is paying for your health insurance, wait until you're either on Dad's plan or you have your own health insurance. Many mental health professionals either consciously or unconsciously are beholden to whoever is paying the bill—and that's not you. A really good mental health professional (yes, they are rare, but they are out there) will help you understand the situation you're in, will document it and might even testify on your behalf in court (when you petition for emancipation or petition to have your mother's parental rights terminated).
As soon as you are on your own (either in college or working) and can get psychotherapy without your parents' knowledge, do it.