Anger is one of the most commonly reported problems in families today. It surfaces in a variety of forms, including domestic violence, child abuse, marital conflicts, sibling rivalry, and generational tensions. Why do we direct our anger at people we know and love? Part of the answer is hidden in the dynamics of the family itself. Other answers come from the hectic pace of contemporary family life and our own thinking.
A family is a complex emotional system where every member affects other members. Unless a person takes drastic measures to emotionally cut themselves off from the family or physically moves away; they cannot escape the power of the family over their behavior. It is this complexity and the fact that so much of family dynamics are outside of member's conscious awareness, that makes change difficult. Consequently, members feel helpless to change anger in the family.
Anger takes place in the family in three ways: It is inherent in family temperament; it carries over from other stressful systems (such as work); it serves a specific function in the family.
A temperament is defined "as a persons customary manner of emotional response (Roget's II, The New Thesaurus)." Everyone knows someone they would describe as having a "temper." One member or more of the family can be moody, intense, reactive, and dislike change. These people could be said to have a feisty or difficult temperament. They have inherited a biology that reacts in a different manner to stressful life events. Temperament is not something that family members can completely change, but it is something that can be modified or adapted to.
Parents who understand this realize that they have not failed their children. They simply have a child with a different temperament. It also answers the question, for many parents, why they seem to have more discomfort relating to one child over another. The more dissimilar the temperament, between parent and child, the more difficult it is to understand and interact together. On the other hand, family members with similar temperaments may "rub" each other the wrong way. Two members with "tempers" will engage in more frequent arguments and power-struggles than would two members with flexible temperaments.
Displaced Anger. Another way that anger affects families is through displacement of anger from one system (i.e., work) to another system (i.e., home). Parents who had a rough day at work don't automatically shed their frustrations on the way home. They can bring it home and react to other family members in a hostile and abusive manner. One answer why family members direct their anger at people they know and love is that it is safer to vent with people they know will not abandon them. The boss may fire someone for venting at them or another employee. A teacher may give a student a bad report for acting out at school. But family members usually stick by you, even if you get angry. Unfortunately, chronic venting at loved one's will result in negative consequences. It breaks down members' ability to feel safe and trust one another.
Anger is Power. Anger has specific social functions that signal us when there is a need that is unfulfilled or a problem that needs solving. The earliest example of this, in families, is seen in the newborn. When the baby is hungry, hurt, or wet, it cries. If responses to its needs are not immediate, it can become angry. The baby will shake and scream until that need is met.
Anger can be used to control other family members. The most common example of this is a small child throwing a "temper" tantrum. The purpose of the tantrum is to get mom or dad to comply with their wants. Older children and adults also throw tantrums. They use it to get children to comply or spouses to listen or siblings to leave them alone. While anger may be one way to gain control, in the short-term, it always back-fires, destroying relationships, in the long-term.
Anger Toolbox. Families do not have to continue to be victims of their own or other's anger. They can use some simple tools to manage anger:
The first tool to managing anger is to take personal responsibility for it. Even if a member's anger is due to temperament or an overbearing boss, take responsibility for your reaction and what you do with that anger. The destructive root of family anger is blame. The blame game only has losers, no winners.
The second tool is to find safe and healthy ways to vent your anger. Give yourself more time to get home so that you are not so upset from the day at work or school. Or ask family members for a few moments alone when you do get home so that you can detox yourself for the day's stress. Find alternative outlets for the pressure that builds up through the day. Exercise, sports, and physical activities are good choices. Additionally, meditation, relaxation training, and healthy diets will ensure a much more powerful buffer to stress.
Thirdly, be aware of how you talk to yourself. If you find yourself reacting to a situation differently than other family members, you may be causing your own problems. What we say to ourselves about situations and other family members influences
our emotions. Get help from a qualified therapist to work on changing how you view difficult problems in your life.
And lastly, increase your social support network. The more people you have to turn to in a time of crisis, the more resourceful you will feel. Some of these people may not be your family members. That's all right. They are safe places to deal with anger so that time at home, with other members, is spent enjoying one another.
References: Ellis, Albert Anger: How to Live With and Without it. New York: Carol Publishing Group. 1992.
Huxley, Ronald Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting. San Diego: Singular Publishing Group, Inc. 1998.
McKay, M., Rogers, P.D. & McKay, J. When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within. Oakland: New Harbinger. 1989.
Robins, Shani & Navaco, Raymond W. "Systems Conceptualization and Treatment of Anger." Journal of Clinical Psychology. (1999). Vol. 55, No. 3, p. 325.