How To Stop the Anger Cycle In Families
by Mrs Barbara Collins
Marriage & Family Therapist
Adam Road Hospital, 19 Adam Road, Singapore 289891
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Just about every parent gets angry at children from
time to time. Anger is a normal human emotion and can be defined as
a strong feeling of displeasure. But some parents give the impression
that anger is the only emotion that they are capable of experiencing
and their messages are always confrontive and expressed as anger.
It's important to know that anger is usually a secondary feeling and
the primary feeling could be fear, hurt, embarrassment and so on.
If parents can get in touch with their primary feeling, they need
not ³become² angry. When anger escalates into an uncontrollable
rage or fury, it's very important to look at the meaning we give to
the feeling of anger similar to peeling apart the layers of an onion
skin. Anger becomes all powerful for us or someone else in our family
when we begin to realise the meaning we give to angry feelings can
be different for different people. What may appear to us as highly
irrational behaviour when someone we love gets ³out of control²
could be rationalised as ³he wasn't thinking, if he had been
he wouldn't have acted that way.² The bottom line is anger can
be controlled and it's important for parents to become better at appraising
situations accurately, not only for themselves but for their families.
The more self-aware you are, the easier it will be to work out your
anger. But exactly how do we do that?
The first way is to become aware that the feeling of
being angry such as upset or hurt creates an anger arousal in the
body. For example, anger arousal causes increased heart rate and blood
pressure, which could set off a chain reaction to other illnesses
in your life. It also happens automatically and any attempt at trying
to control yourself may seem impossible. It feels like throwing a
glass of water on a raging fire. The key here is to notice and identify
your anger arousal. Using self-talk such as ³I am feeling my
body get tense and I have found a way to calm myself down² can
really be important first step at learning to control an angry impulse.
Learning to use I statements' or self-relaxation exercises or
to take their own ³10 minute time outs² to help create more
coping strategies for the initial anger feelings. Another technique
I teach is ³focusing² which takes self-talk to a deeper
level to help parents discover the primary reason behind the anger,
the faster you can learn to control the anger in yourself.
If our actions communicate to others that we are angry,
specifically by yelling, throwing things or other destructive behaviours,
we are modelling unhealthy anger patterns to our children. We probably
learned how to be angry in our behaviours from our own parents. If
your parents or significant others expressed anger by yelling and
slamming a door, you probably do the same. If your parents went to
different parts of the house at angry moments, your anger actions
probably include leaving the scene in a hurry which is a distancing
reaction. It's important to look at family patterns to at least understand
where you may have learned the acceptable way to express anger in
your family-of-origin. If you are a ³distancer² this enables
you to ignore the other person rather than deal with a face to face
combat and the anger never gets resolved when it needs too. Anger
like this is a form of passive aggression and is not always in our
best interest or in the best interest of the family. Understand how
your anger works and that it is a complex system of reactions that
include your unique thinking patterns, bodily changes and negative
behaviour changes. Anger is usually triggered by an external event.
But it is important to understand that it is the way we personally
think about the event that tends to make us angry.
For example, a mother may want her daughter to
clean her room. She may say, ³Why can't you keep your room as
clean as your brother?² The daughter may react in a rageful angry
way to the comparison to her ³perfect brother that the mother
loves more than me² in her mind. Instead of the daughter taking
10 minutes to clean her room, which she may have decided to do on
her own if her mother had not reminded her, the daughter storms out
of the house screaming and angry. The frustrated mother appraises
her daughter's failure to keep her room clean as deliberate disobedience
and can't understand why she is effective with her son but not her
daughter. Mother's own frustration leads to angry self-talk and thoughts.
The daughter interprets the mother's anger as she is never good enough
and the whole situation takes on the pattern of a viscious cycle.
This is very typical and very destructive. Each person has their own
perception of the angry event and reacts in their own typical pattern.
The greater the perceived threat or distorted perception of a threat
(such as the loss of our parent's love or respect), the more likely
an intense anger will result. To break an anger cycle you have to
be able to do the following according to Dr Weisinger's book:
Be able to identify
and understand your anger triggers, for these external events
that interact with your thoughts, bodily changes and behaviour
initiate your anger.
Be able to change your thoughts,
physical responses and actions that are perpetuating your anger.
Initiate and substitute productive
ways of dealing with your anger.
Knowing how your thoughts, bodily changes and actions work together
is crucial for emotionally controlling your anger.
Knowing how your thoughts, bodily changes and
actions work together is crucial for emotionally controlling your
Helping Your Children Work Out Their Anger
As a parent you can teach your children how to
work out their anger in ways that does not involve the parent as the
object. Also, between parent and child, you can teach your children
how to work out the anger that exists between you. If parents view
anger in their children as totally unacceptable or try to control
it or get extremely angered by it - it may make matters worse. The
best course of action is to first validate a child's right to get
angry by encouraging emotional expression. Helping the child not to
fear their emotions and be able to express their feelings, to know
that their feelings count and that their feelings are OK to have,
even anger and hate are important. Holding or hugging your children
when they are obviously distressed but not verbalising their feelings
also helps. So does soothing music.
Next, helping your child to investigate their anger by being more
sensitive and aware of what is going on in their lives. Tuning in
to what helps them feel secure creates a healthy emotional climate
and validates their feelings. Helping your children to express anger
productively by setting limits so that your child can express anger
in a way that is not self defeating and hurtful is another important
approach. Be consistent and do not threaten. Set limits by making
the punishment fit the crime. Use natural consequences when setting
limits as much as possible. ³Saving² your kids too many
times prevents learning. Help your children to talk about their feelings
by creating time together, paying attention to their interests and
encouraging their individual forms of self-expression (drawing, dancing,
art,etc). Model self-disclosure by using I - feel language and do
not interrupt them or put them down. Provide options and choices and
appropriate consequences that teach responsibility for their actions.
Using a discussion of moral dilemmas by asking hypothetical questions
helps to teach your child to recognise, anticipate and evaluate the
consequences of their responses and how it affects behaviour. Setting
short and long term goals encourages children to think of the consequences
of their behaviour and evaluate whether his actions will help achieve
his goals. Thinking of goals makes it easier for the child to direct
his energy toward productive results. Teach the child the three essential
rules for resolving interpersonal conflict.
1. What did I do?
2. It takes time to think.
3. Put yourself in the other guy's shoes
Alternatives, consequences, goals and interaction are some of the
concepts that help children become more competent which enables them
to work out their anger. If you understand how anger works inside
yourself and you have the tools to help your children work out their
anger, the unhealthy cycle of anger in the feuding family will be
broken. Substitute trust, good communication and an emotionally healthy
environment. The more secure you feel with each other, the less you
threaten each other and that's one of the secrets to healthy family
1. Dr Weisinger's Anger Work-Out Book by Hendrie Weisinger, Ph. D.
2. P.E.T. Parent Effectiveness Training In Action by Dr Thomas Gordon,
Putnam Publishing Group/New York
Barbara Collins, M.S., is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
(US trained) and a Clinical Member of the American Association of
Marriage and Family Therapy. She is also a Certified Hypnotherapist
by the American Board of Hypnotherapists. Her specialty is helping
families with children and adolescents and she works as a Marriage
and Family Consultant at Adam Road Hospital, 19 Adam Road, Singapore