Anger Management Courses - Anger Patterns are Caught, not Taught

by James A. Baker
(November, 2008. Recovery Today)


Last Saturday, the referee at my 11-year-old son’s soccer game gave him a yellow card for tripping. Okay, that happens. But then my kid goes ballistic and starts screaming at the ref, which leads to him getting a red card and getting ejecting from the game. Where in the world did he pick up such a vicious temper? What can I do about it before it gets worse?

Dumbfounded in Dallas

Dear Dallas:

Oh, I don’t know, what about all the childish, irresponsible behavior kids see displayed by college and pro athletes during games on TV? Certainly that is sending a message that it is okay to victimize players and disrespect officials, and believe me it does make a big impression on 11-year old kids.

But I have another suggestion; it may be coming from the childish, irresponsible behavior he witnesses at home. In many cases, children get their cues about how to express anger by watching - and being victimized by - the way their parents express anger at home. To little kids, anger is a powerful, scary weapon. When parents express anger inappropriately in front of kids, i.e., lots of raised voices, personal attacks, swear words, door slamming, etc. - even if it is not directed at the kids - the stress and fear that results from just being exposed to those emotions can be terrifying and shaming. Children instinctively react defensively by staying out of sight and out of range. They may also work hard to be perfect for you - grades, athletics, chores - so they minimize their risk of becoming a target for your anger. All the while they are stuffing their own fear and anger.

However, eventually, all this pent up emotion starts to come out. Especially as kids enter puberty, they start replicating at school or on the playing field all the negative feelings and patterns they have absorbed at home. Did you teach them to behave that way? Maybe not, but there is no doubt that they caught it from you.

What can you do about it now? Start by doing a lot of soul searching about your own anger patterns. Do you express yourself in mature, responsible, assertive, safe ways when you get angry? Even if you are the kind of person who doesn’t routinely get angry and blow off a lot of steam, when you do get angry, do you sound or act hostile and say things you later regret? If so, the place to start is to apologize to your whole family, take responsibility for your immature behavior, and get into anger management training ASAP.

Meet Lizzie
Anger in teens can take a lot of forms. For instance, Lizzie is 14. She has always been a sweet, creative and sensitive kid. She loves drawing and music and animals. However, in the past year, her grades have started to dip, she has developed a very sharp, sarcastic attitude, she has quit cooperating at home, and she has experimented with cutting. She has also become an accomplished liar, often telling elaborate stories about friends she doesn’t really have, instruments she doesn’t really play and events that never happened.

That is when her mother contacted us. There is no history or evidence of physical or sexual abuse. Both of her parents appear to love her, even though their parenting style leaves much to be desired. The one thing that became quickly, painfully obvious, is that Lizzie’s parents act like they hate each other. They yell and scream at each other, belittle each other, use profanity frequently when fighting with each other, and generally foster an emotionally unsafe environment for Lizzie.

Gradually, inevitably, Lizzie is showing the wear and tear of being raised in a war zone. She has learned how to dish it out just as good as her parents can. However, because the overall atmosphere is constantly negative, she is not just angry, she is hopeless. Her parent’s inability to deal maturely with their marital problems has stolen from Lizzie the self esteem and the joy for life that a girl with her abilities and intellect should be reveling in.

I explained to her parents that Lizzie is not the problem; she is simply a symptom of the real problem, and until they learn to handle their anger more responsibly and resolve their marital conflicts, Lizzie will only get worse. Once Lizzie’s mom got the picture - Lizzie in 15 years living a life as hopeless as her own - she saw the light. She is now working on her own anger issues, and negotiating with her husband to do the same, for Lizzie’s sake.

I often tell the parents of angry children that their kid’s are simply the canaries in the family mine shaft; they are just showing the typical signs of growing up in a family with toxic anger problems. Don’t blame the kid, look in the mirror. Once you get a handle on your own anger problems, it will be easier to love your child back to emotional health.

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