Parental Anger is Normal

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 119 · Duration: 00:15:57

Parental Anger Is Normal

Parental Anger Is Normal

In this episode I respond to a Dad who has a well functioning 15 year old son, but goes into a rage when his parents say “NO”.

And if you have a question you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my website, neildbrown.com and enter it there today. And while you’re there, download a free copy of my Parental Burnout Recovery Guide.

Today we’re answering a question from Dan of Boulder CO.

My 15 year old son is running the house.  My wife and I are both mild mannered and we’ve always been supportive and loving with our son. We read a lot of parenting books and they all support parenting without anger.  Our son and we are close and if you saw us, you’d think everything was great, at least until we say “NO” to something.  If we take something away, he goes into a rage.  I let him calm down and talk with him and we usually work out a compromise.

He’s a good kid overall.  He does well in school, sports, has friends, and he’s great at home unless we tell him “NO”, then he rages and we duck and cover.  I don’t understand why this is happening or what we should do about it.  Getting angry back would make things worse and so does taking away his privileges.  Please advise us.

Thanks for your question Dan and it’s an important one.  What you’re telling us is that neither you nor your wife get angry, but your son does and as a result, his anger is a major problem in the home and you and your wife are not able to set effective limits, so he’s getting his way.

The Difference Between Destructive Parental Anger and Healthy Parental Anger

Let me start by weighing in on the subject of parenting and anger since you’ve gotten the message to parent without anger.  Anger is a very natural emotion and we all feel it, some more intensely than others but we all feel it.  In fact some people feel all their feelings more intensely than others, but we all have feelings. 

Most parenting experts advise that parenting with anger is wrong and destructive to child and youth development.  I’d have to agree that using anger on a regular basis can be traumatic and make for an emotionally unsafe environment.

When parents use anger to communicate on a regular basis, it loses the opportunity to help kids learn that managing responsibilities and cooperating with adults is a good idea. Click To Tweet

Instead they learn that they simply have to do what they’re told or they’ll get in trouble, get yelled at and additionally, they can interpret and internalize the idea that they’re not okay in some way, that they are essentially flawed.  Obviously these are terrible outcomes. 

Yet anger is a normal emotion, so is there a place for it in parenting?  Let me ask you this, how many of you got raised without your parents ever getting angry with you?  I didn’t see any hands go up and that’s not an accident.  Anger is normal and common. 

Here’s the distinction when parental anger is a bad thing, and when it is a reasonable thing.

  • When parents are angry a lot or what kids might call “all the time”, it makes for a negative emotional environment and it invites control battles where kids resist the message and the messenger sometimes in active ways and sometimes in passive ways, but chronic anger and negativity invites resistance and when that resistance is in place, the resistance frustrates parents and makes them more negative and angrier and so it goes.  The pattern becomes yet another element and an invisible one that kids and parents feel helpless to change.
  • On the other hand, when parents use many tools for setting limits including rewards, positive explanations, appreciation, flexibility, warm communication tones, clear standards, support, then when kids hear anger it means one of two things, “Mom or Dad is in a bad mood and I’d better get a move on” or “I really screwed up, I wasn’t cooperating and now they’re at the end of their rope and I better get on it.  It isn’t abusive, the child or teenager doesn’t develop a negative sense of self. No trauma.  What’s received is a sense of urgency that kids can respond to where the relationship and the emotional environment is positive. 

In your family Dan, you’ve got an unusual situation but one I’m quite familiar with and I call it, The Double Softy Syndrome.  That’s when neither parent is comfortable with intense emotions, theirs or their child’s and back off and don’t set effective limits.  In some cases as in yours, you get a lot of cooperation because of basically being a good family that’s close, supportive, and positive.  But then when your son doesn’t get his way, he becomes angry and doesn’t manage his anger.  He instead becomes hostile and abusive.  He has a temper tantrum. 

Let’s talk about what you can do and most importantly why you should do it.

There are some very bright spots in your situation that you can feel good about.  Your son is doing well academically, he has interests he’s talented at and successful with, and he has friends.  This all means he has a positive identity and he most likely isn’t going to go off cockeyed and start doing something crazy.  His life is going well and he doesn’t want to screw it up. 

On the other hand, he is used to getting his way and being accommodated when he’s upset and feels strongly about something.  Like I said his behavior is hostile, abusive and very immature; it shows a lack of empathy, respect, and humility; “that I should get my way because I feel strongly about it.” 

Well Dan, obviously you and I know the world doesn’t work that way.  Many, many things happen in our lives that are neither fair nor reasonable and we need a good tool kit for dealing with them. 

Many, many things happen in our lives that are neither fair nor reasonable and we need a good tool kit for dealing with them. Click To Tweet

Fortunately many good things can happen as well, but if we don’t have good skills for dealing with the bad things, we’ll get stuck there and it can get us in trouble.  It can effect us in our jobs and careers, our intimate relationships, and even with the law. I’ve had many college students come into my office on referral from their defense attorney incredulous that the district attorney is charging them with a felony and the university is suspending them.  In each case, these are very decent kids having their first experience being held accountable as adults. 

How to Get Your Kid on a Healthy Developmental Path Forward

So Dan, this is important and even though it isn’t easy, it’s doable.  No you don’t have to get angry, we do need to get your son on a developmental path forward. 

Here is what we need him to understand, that he needs to learn to accept limits even when he thinks they’re unfair or unreasonable.  And, when he’s upset, to deal with his upset feelings without getting hostile.  And he needs to know that when he steps over the line with anger, there will be accountability.  If he can learn this now, he won’t have to learn it later when the consequences are more life changing.

I don’t know your son or your family so I’m not sure exactly what will work best; to present the required changes in person or in writing first, but I’ll suggest writing since your son might get upset when you talk with him and reading it will be a chance to have your whole message laid out and then you and he can both refer back to it as needed.

Here’s the message: 

  • You are a great kid and we are a close family.  We share a lot of love and good times together.  We’re proud of you and we enjoy watching you and helping you grow up.  We are proud of you that you apply yourself in school and do your best in sports, which you love.
  • Mom and I have been good loving parents, and while we don’t take credit for your accomplishments, we know we have made a loving home for you to grow up in.
  • There is something we’ve done wrong that we need to make you aware of.  When you get upset, we back down and you end up getting your way.  We’ve taught you that getting upset is the right way to get your way, and IT ISN’T. 
  • Now Mom and I are walking on eggshells and your anger is a problem for us and it will be for you too.  If you don’t change your way of dealing with frustration and disappointment, it’s going to catch up with you and hurt you.
  • You are not going to agree with every decision we make.  If you are willing to listen respectfully, we can explain our thinking, but many times you will think we are being unreasonable or unfair.  That’s how life is and it won’t stop with us.  Many times we have to deal with things that we think are unreasonable and unfair.  If we can deal well with those situations and make the best of them, we can go on to the good things.
  • We expect you to manage your frustrations and disappointments more reasonably and more respectfully.  If you set your mind to that task you’ll conquer it.  If you stay stuck on getting your way, it will take longer before you do.
  • Mom and I would like to apologize for letting things go this far before teaching you this and committing to holding you accountable. 
  • When you get angry and hostile towards us, we will remind you to settle down.  If you don’t, all privileges will be withdrawn until we can have a discussion where you acknowledge what you did wrong, and commit to more mature behavior going forward.  Then you can ask for a task to demonstrate your commitment and mom and I will assign one that we need done and when that’s completed, and if your attitude is positive, privileges will return.  If the inappropriate anger continues, privileges will be withdrawn for a much longer time until you and we can figure out what needs to be done to turn things around.

In Conclusion

Dan, if you are ready to deliver this message and follow though, things will go well after a predictably stormy period.  Changing patterns can be tough stuff because others are invested in things staying the same, but stick with it and you’ll get great results. 

You may want to get to a counselor known to do well with teenage boys. Start as a family and when the counselor knows what he has to help your son with, he can go for some individual sessions that will support his growth. 

So listeners, we professionals and therapists can confuse parents about normal, healthy imperfect parenting.  Parents expressing anger when it isn’t the rule but the exception, is a perfectly reasonable way to communicate that things have gone too far and they demand action NOW.

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and thanks to Dan for his question and we wish you Dan and your family a great result here.

And let’s remember to please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.


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2 Comments

  1. I just listened to the podcast, and I was blown away with the answer you provided for the parents to deliver to their angry son. I, too, have an angry teenager (a daughter, in our case), and the whole family walks on eggshells around her. When we’ve tried to discuss it with her, she gets even angrier, which in turn makes us angry! Very non-productive. I’m going to use some of your words to write her a letter the next time we have an issue. Thank you!

    • Thanks for connecting and letting us know how you are letting this podcast support healthy change in your family. Yes, it’s all about changing patterns; in your cast changing a pattern where your daughter’s expressions of anger are unhealthy for her and the family. Her anger is controlling the family rather than the family teaching healthy expressions of uncomfortable emotions. Our best wishes to you and your family. Neil

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