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Anger At Home is Contagious

Posted Nov 25 2010 4:47pm

Mad and Angry Mental Health Service Dog fit in the family

Have you noticed that in some homes anger spreads like wildfire. Sometimes it starts with a spark and slowly spreads. Other times it starts with an explosion and spreads quickly like an out of control forest fire. Either way, family anger often creates an uncomfortable, oppressive atmosphere in the home, like storm clouds suddenly spoiling a perfectly sunny day.

It can start with any family member who tends to be the “mood setter” of the house. In my family of origin, the mood setter was definitely my father. If he was angry, we all had to somehow cope with it, usually by avoiding him and walking around gingerly as if on eggshells. After the explosion, he “felt better” and was ready to be pleasant with all of us, but unfortunately the emotional damage was done resulting in an attitude that the last thing we wanted at that point was to be with him. It is hard to un-ring a bell! Once the words are said, the insult delivered, or the derisive name  called, the effects of these angry actions will not automatically dissipate because the offender himself or herself feels better having released it.

The Case of Tanya and her family
Any family member, of course, can be the mood-setter. Often it is an adolescent or even a younger child  that sets things off in any number of ways. Take Andrea, a 15 year old child of Tanya, and step-child of her husband Edwardo.  Tanya is what we would call a high maintenance child, always needing things, doing poorly in school, and having an “attitude” that creates constant tension in the home. Tanya ignores Edwardo most of the time; won’t even say “hello” as they pass each other in the hallway. This infuriates Edwardo who is paying all the bills for a very comfortable life style. He knows that if he “blows up,” however, it will seriously disrupt his relationship with his wife Andrea whom he believes is far too tolerant of her daughter’s behavior. As a result, most of the time he suppresses (sits on) his anger. But, every once in a while he can no longer contain himself and explodes at Tanya for a relatively minor offense., which starts a whole cycle of negativity, yelling and screaming, threats, and general family chaos and angst.

Five Tips to Stop Family Anger In Its Tracks:
Often a professional therapist is needed to help seriously dysfunctional family members learn to cope with each other. Before taking that step, however, the following five self-help tips may help:

1. While it is always the responsibility of the angry person to learn to manage their angry feelings better (as we teach in our local anger management classes as well as our online anger classes , it is also true that the family’s response to the angry person has something to do with its continuance or escalation. Try different responses to the anger (as long as it is not physical or horribly abusive) and see if your new response de-escalates the anger. Sometimes the response could be something like “I feel disresped when you talk to me or our daughter that way and I don’t appreciate it,” or “I know what you mean; I feel that way too; let’s sit down and talk about it.” Sometimes the response should be a physical (non- violent) action. For instance, in my childhood home, when my father raged, my mother would go around and close all the windows of the house protecting my father  so the neighbor’s wouldn’t hear. Do you think this increased or decreased the probability that he would rage again?   There are many ways you can respond differently to get a different result; try one of them!

2. Get parenting help from a professional, if most fights or conflicts revolve around a child or the children. Be consistent with your parenting; if you promised a negative consequence to their bad behavior, FOLLOW-THROUGH. The concept is called “tough-love” and sometimes you just have to do it, even if it breaks your heart.  Your children already have their friends; your role, if you must choose, should be to be a parent – not a “friend” if that means letting them treat you like a peer.

3. Give the angry person some “space” instead of demanding immediate resolution of the issue. In our system of anger management, we call this tool “retreat and think things over.” Remember that different people have different nervous system and thus have different ways of dealing with stressful issues. Some people (especially teenagers) need alone time to figure things out. Give it to them, instead of escalating things by following them around the house demanding answers! You may be overwhelming them.

4. De-Stress Yourself before dealing with family conflict. The simplest way is to simply take in five deep breaths. It is amazing how this can calm you down. Your calmness can do a lot to de-stress other family members, too. Other suggestions would include taking a walk, listening to soothing music, or simply being alone for a while.

5. Be a good role model on how to handle conflicts  as well as the anger of other family members. Don’t expect your children to handle anger well if they have no role-models in their home. Knowing how to handle human conflicts that arise in all families is a skill that some people have much more than others. Think in terms of “how do we handle this conflict” and how can we parents deal with the conflict in a way that will teach our children how to do it.


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