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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”?


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


Purchase my complete 80+ page set of Hand Outs on Anger in Relationships for only $4.99: Buy Now

3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro

Anger = Expectation + Interpretation (ver. 2)

Anger = Expectation + Interpretation
(ver. 2)

Do find yourself getting angry at what someone else says or does? Their offensive behavior (such as someone insulting you, or your child disobeying you) is referred to as a “trigger event” for your anger.

In reality, you don’t need to pull that trigger! You really CAN manage your anger better. By that I mean you can reduce its intensity, or even eliminate the angry feeling altogether, in any specific situation.


Recognize the importance of expectations and interpretations.

The plain and simple truth is this: Your anger is the result of your own thoughts about the “trigger event” and not the trigger event itself. It’s not your child, or your child’s behavior that make you angry. It’s your own thoughts about it that make you angry. You probably are familiar with the much-discussed medical phenomenon that a “stressful” event may or may not result in a person experiencing a stress reaction. It all depends on the person’s state of mind, and her thought process, in dealing with an event that could easily be seen as “highly stressful.“

The same is true for a person’s response to a ‘trigger event.” The response depends entirely on the person’s state of mind (mind-set, thought process).

Consider, for example, a typical trigger event that appears to set parents off: unacceptable child behavior, like backtalk or disobedience. (This analysis applies equally to any event that anyone can experience at any time–for example, being delayed in the check-out lane at the grocery store, or hearing someone call you an insulting, vulgar, or belittling name.)

Let’s say you have just said “No” to your son’s request to stay overnight at a friend’s house. He says, “You’re really stupid! Everyone else gets to go! Why do I have to have such dumb mother?”

That would get most parents’ blood boiling. But think about it. Who is making you mad in this case? Your angry, frustrated, and disrespectful child? Or is it your own mental process that gets you going? Admittedly, the child’s verbal blast is disrespectful. And it’s also wrong. You are not stupid, you are not dumb, and not everybody else gets to go to events like this.

So your emotional response as a parent depends entirely on your state of mind, that is, your mind-set, or your own thoughts about this trigger event. And you don’t have to pull the trigger! Instead of taking the insult personally, you can just as easily:

1. Expect your child to act that way because he’s immature and self-centered, and he has acted this way a thousand times before; and

2. Interpret what he said as an angry, primitive, disrespectful outburst by an immature, self-centered child who has been snubbed and is intensely disappointed and upset with you. So he lashes out by calling you stupid and dumb.

What he says about you does not define who you are! As I said, you are not stupid or dumb. Those are just your son’s words, and you don’t have to take them personally. Furthermore, the fact that he’s being disrespectful is absolutely no reflection on you. It’s his own anger and disappointment talking, and you have the power to see it as such–and nothing more.

This is a very empowering insight about anger, and it can radically change your life for the better–both in relation to managing your angry feelings, and in relation to your son. The simple truth is that your anger is the result of your own thoughts about the “trigger event” (that offensive thing someone else did or said). And you–not anyone else–can control your thoughts!

Your best response in any situation like this is to remain calm, cool, and collected, and realize that his offensive behavior is a “trigger” for your anger, but you don’t have to pull it. If you are sensitive to being disrespected by your son, you might say that “He’s pushing my buttons.” But please realize: it’s you who are placing that button on your chest as something that’s available and begging to be pushed! You can just as surely take it down and not make it available. How?

  1. By changing your expectations (make them more realistic, based on what you know about whom you are dealing with). And
  2. By doing some mental gymnastics (self-talk) to change your negative interpretation to a more positive one (by “giving him/her a pass,” telling yourself you are going to withhold judgment, telling yourself you are not going to take it personally, and telling yourself that getting angry isn’t worth it). These kinds of thoughts will reduce or eliminate your angry feelings.

Your expectations set you up.

Here are some ways to apply this to our example.

  1. Did you really expect him to do or say something different? Or did you just hope for it?
  2. Was your expectation realistic, given what you know about your son?
  3. Might it be helpful to change your expectation of your son based on his previous reactions?

Your interpretations bring you down.

Here’s how your interpretation can affect your response in our example.

  1. Do you really think his/her offensive behavior reflects on you, or defines who you are?
  2. Do you take his insult personally? You don’t have to!
  3. It’s your own behavior (not his) that reflects on you–unless you expect to be the perfect parent, and have kids who never do things wrong.

When you can regularly change your expectations and interpretations of other people’s offensive behavior in the heat of the moment, you will reduce your stress, quiet your anger, improve your relationships, and change your life for the better. Believe it! And try it! It works!


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro