The title of this entry is an issue that comes up a lot in my practice, especially in regards to parents dealing with their first-born children. I speculate that it comes up more for this group because parents of first-borns may not have had the chance to think through the nuances of these issues, the stances they wish to take and the procedures they wish to employ. (Doesn’t it seem that by the time we have this stuff all figured out our children are leaving home?) When parents introduce this issue it usually isn’t with a question wondering about the difference between healthy expressions of anger and disrespect. It’s usually introduced with the declaration “he’s being so disrespectful!” However, when I ask for examples I’m struck by the fact that this discussion often becomes about helping a parent to differentiate between adaptive and dysfunctional expressions of anger and how to help his or her child learn to express his or her anger adaptively. So, I’d like to explain what’s at stake, give some examples of each type of expression of anger and suggest how to respond.
All the time I work with adults who consciously or unconsciously believe that expressing anger is dangerous. People won’t like them. People they care for will end up hurt. People will retaliate. Or, people will abandon them. While there are many factors that play into this besides how the person’s parents responded to his or her anger as child (e.g., cultural pressures on females to not express anger, being stuck in childlike and magical misperceptions of about one’s power), how we parents respond to our kids’ expressions of anger is part of the equation, as is how we model our own expressions of anger. None of us want to communicate to our children that expressing anger, in appropriate ways, is wrong or dangerous, at least not within our households. If we communicate, intentionally or not, that expressions of anger ore not okay we risk increasing poor outcomes for our kids (e.g., depression, intermittent explosions, passive-aggressiveness, substance abuse). So, let me give some examples of what I would argue are okay versus not okay expressions of anger, keeping in mind that contexts can always move a particular example to the other list.
Ten examples of (usually) okay expressions of anger:
• “I hate school!”
• “Why are you so mean?!”
• “My life sucks!”
• Stomping off in anger
• Slamming a door that doesn’t break anything
• “You’re a terrible mother/father!”
• “None of my friends have a parent like you!”
• “My teachers suck!”
• “I hope you die!”
• “I hate you!”
Ten examples of (usually) not okay expressions of anger:
• Any use of the F-word, and it’s derivatives
• Flipping the bird
• Hitting someone (not in self-defense)
• Damaging property
• Throwing things (most of the time, though sometimes this can be harmless)
• Declarations suggesting you put your mouth on some part of your child’s body
• Sexually related gestures or comments
• Blocking you from going where you wish to go
• Misusing resources (e.g., throwing away that left over pasta you were looking forward to eating)
In the former category I’d mostly just not respond, and try to create some separation, as you’re not likely to be able to sustain a productive exchange anyway (i.e., your child is suffering from transient brain dysfunction as we all lose IQ points when we get angry). However, I would usually go back later, when both you and your child are calm, and do a psychological autopsy regarding the underlying issues, with an eye towards providing some relief or resolution.
In the latter category I’d use time out for kids ≤ age 12 (there can be exceptions for older but less mature teens and younger but more mature youth) and removal of privileges or grounding for teens. In upcoming blog entries I’ll describe methodologies for these punishment procedures. (You can also see Chapter Five of my parenting book and find related and relevant content in my entry on “Six tips for when you lose it with your kids.”) In closing please also keep in mind that a regular occurrence of these kinds of problems may be signalling that working with a qualified psychologist or mental health professional could be very helpful; for a referral, click here.