Anger in the Family — and in Other Relationships

Anger in the Family —
and in Other Relationships

In the parenting classes that I do, I hear a lot of of parents talk about their children’s anger–tantrums, verbal and physical fights with each other, outbursts at school or with other peers, etc.

However, my concern here is parental anger because the children learn to handle their angry feelings from their parents by experiencing how the parents do it. So the key to anger in the family is anger in the parents. If you, the parent, learn what to do to control and even minimize the intensity of your anger, your child will learn how to do it too. And you can also actively teach him how to do it.

I’ve developed a 10-session course on anger management for parents and other adults that I run at a local agency. Lorraine Bilodeau (in Responding to Anger) speaks of an “anger response cycle,” and I’ve taken that idea and added some things to it that might sound a little complicated, but everyone who hears about it likes it. Understanding these ideas and applying them to your daily life will help you maintain your cool in tense situations. These methods will not only help you express your anger appropriately with your children and help them learn to do the same. They will also help you actually reduce the intensity of your anger responses to them and reduce your stress.

The Anger Response Cycle

The “anger response cycle” consists of a trigger event (#1 below) followed by six different internal processes occurring in the person that are all responses to the trigger event. Let’s say I’ve just told my five-year-old stepson to pick his coat up off the floor and hang it up. He yells in anger, “I don’t have to! You’re not my father!” That’s the trigger event. I immediately feel intense anger and I yell, “Hey! You don’t talk to me that way!” My reaction is spontaneous and instantaneous, and I’m in a rage. Would it be accurate to say, “Johnny really made me mad”?

No!

Although we talk this way all the time, it’s completely inaccurate. I feel insulted and hurt and blame my anger on the other person, who I believe caused my angry reaction. How often have you heard someone, be it child or adult, say something like, “He insulted me and pissed me off.” Well, the truth of the matter, is: he did insult me,  true, but he’s not the one who made me angry. I am. Or, a parent will say something like this: “She makes me so angry. She knows just how to push my buttons.” Again, the child may know  the parent’s soft spots quite well, but it’s not the child who makes mom mad. It’s mom, and to say “she makes me so angry” is simply not true. How can this be?

In between the child’s insult and the parent’s anger, which looks like a straight-line cause-effect phenomenon, a lot of things have happened within the parent. And they happened so fast that the parent’s angry response “You don’t talk to me that way!” seems instantaneous. That’s the anger response, and it happens in adults and children alike. It’s very empowering to understand what really happens, so let’s take a look at it.

What takes place within the person (let’s say the parent) who feels angry and insulted is described in numbers 2-7 below, following the verbal insult, which is #1 in the sequence.

  1. A trigger event (call it “X”) that “makes me angry. Examples: someone insults me; my child calls me a derogatory name; my child lies to me.
  2. I have a general expectation, my mind set, prior to X happening, about what is supposed to happen, or what will happen, in any given situation. This includes all the assumptions I make about how people are supposed to behave in any given situation, and as parent I don’t expect to be insulted by my child..
  3. As soon as I hear the insult, I instantaneously make an interpretation of it. This is my first thought about the trigger event (X) as it is happening. I call this thought the “threat thought” because I interpret X as threat to my sense of self, as in: “I don’t deserve to be treated this way.”
  4. I have an adrenaline reaction in the brain, which causes #5;
  5. I feel a defensive emotional response (anger), and I immediately have #6;
  6. Another thought about what to do, which I call the “decision thought” because it leads to #7;
  7. A behavioral response to X on my part. This is something  that I say or do almost immediately (i.e., in the split-second) after X happens.

The amount of time it takes to complete the whole cycle is extremely rapid–say, less than a second. It’s almost instantaneous. My child calls me stupid, and I am immediately yelling at her for being disrespectful.

At point #3 above in the cycle, which I call the “threat thought,” I make an interpretation about X that either causes an adrenalin-anger response or does not cause one. And at point 6), which I call the “decision thought,” I have one or more thoughts that determine precisely what I will say or do behaviorally. The whole cycle usually occurs in a split second for most people.

Thoughts: the Two Self-Empowerment Points

My goal here is to help you see that there are two  points in the anger response cycle that you have the complete power to intervene and literally control your anger response, including the intensity of your angry feelings, in any situation. These two points are the thought points: the threat thought and the decision thought. If you can see this and accept that YOU are the one and only person who “makes you mad” whenever you get angry, you will be able to work with these ideas, become more conscious of your own internal process in anger situations, slow your anger response down, and gain total control of the intensity of your anger as well as how you respond behaviorally (what you say or do), and help everyone in your family do the same.

I teach this course a lot, and many remarkable changes have literally transformed the lives and relationships of many, many participants. Two noteworthy incidents come to my mind that have occurred in these classes. The first was this. A participant blurted out the tremendous insight, when the “light bulb went on,” that at the moment of the threat thought, “It’s Me!” In other words, she said, “I make myself angry. The other person doesn’t really make me angry.at all! My anger depends on what my interpretation of X is.” This is exactly the same insight that experts describe in their teachings about stress: different people have different stress reactions to the same stressful event, depending on their own internal responses to the event itself.

Another empowering “light bulb” went on in another class, when a father who had a very explosive and violent temper came up with his world-changing insight that the whole thing happens so fast that at the decision thought “You don’t even hear yourself think!” That realization literally changed his life forever, as well as the lives of others in his family because he suddenly had suddenly acquired the enormous power of a weapon over his greatest enemy: how he habitually responded physically toward things and people whenever his intense anger erupted into violent fury.

Not Getting Angry as Often

I’ve been celebrating those two insights in the group, and most group members are finding that they simply are not getting angry very much any more, thanks mainly to getting control of the “threat thought.” Like the violent father, many other parents are finding  that, while they still get angry quickly, have learned to slow down the anger response cycle by thinking (what I call “mental gymnastics”) in the heat of the moment and, at the point of the decision thought, are stopping all action and thinking their way through their behavioral options and the various consequences of different potential responses. Instead of simply exploding verbally or physically, they are but taking time (albeit just a few seconds) to consider to choose an appropriate and healthy response for the situation.

Implications for Anger in the Family–and in the World

What I have sketched out here is literally the solution for ending all violence. I am convinced  that all physical violence starts with words before it escalates beyond control. And words start in the brain, where they are formulated and given the order to “go forth” as it were. Ugly, abusive, critical, insulting things that people say to each other have their origin in the brain, in the mind. All of our relationships are shaped by the words we utter and the way we say them.

Could anything be more important for families, then, and for a transformation of the way we raise our children (as Marianne Williamson has said), than parents learning that they alone, and not their children, are the cause of the anger that is so often directed at their children? The implication for families here is nothing less than this: parents have within themselves the power to transform conflict into harmony with the people they probably love most in the world, their own children. It goes without saying that this same power can transform the relationships they have with their spouses, too. And with other family members. And with co-workers. And with friends. And with strangers. And with enemies.

Since children live what they see, and learn what their parents model, I have no doubt that parents are the key to ending violence of all kinds, verbal and physical,  in the streets, in our communities, and in the world.

And it all takes place within the home

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