The Lessons of Anger

October 16, 2018

Last week, I explored whether avoiding all anger at one’s children might be too much of a good thing. In essence, I argued that when children see us deal with our aggression, they learn to deal with theirs. Anger is most essentially a response to having one’s boundaries violated. When someone is angry at us, we get valuable feedback that we have crossed a line. In this way, we learn that we must adapt ourselves to other people’s boundaries. We become familiar with necessary limitation. Our own fiery feelings are tempered in the flames of another’s anger.

A child, therefore, who never or rarely experiences parental anger may be insufficiently aware that his actions have consequences – that he can affect other people. He may not be aware of limitation. Parental limits – often set in the context of parental anger – is how children first learn that they are not omnipotent. Anger is how we know we have stepped on another’s toes. In that sense, it is how we find each other – we see the person as an “other,” with her own subjectivity, feelings, moods, and needs. This is relieving somehow. It is, in the end, good to know we are not all-powerful, that there is some place that our influence stops, and that there are things larger than us in life. This loss of infantile grandiosity relieves us of the need to have all the answers and prepares us for genuine relatedness. Real relationships have joy and friction; love and hate. Deep in our bones, we know this.

A child who has not experienced the limitation of interpersonal anger is uninitiated. She is not ready to handle the dark energies that she may meet out in the world – or within herself. Some research is perhaps relevant by analogy. Psychologists have discovered that there is an inverse relationship between being exposed to some challenging behaviors as a child and anxiety later in life. In fact, parents who engage in “challenging behaviors”  — for example, roughhousing, playful teasing, allowing a child to lose a game – are inuring their children against anxiety, according to recent research.

I have wondered whether exposing our children –within limits – to our difficult emotions such as anger might help them develop resilience and fearlessness about such fiery feelings. The tendency to stay away from difficult feelings, termed emotional avoidance, is a significant contributor to mental health problems. If our children see us get angry, express our feelings, and then recover and reconnect, taking responsibility for any rupture that may have occurred, we have modeled for them an appropriate relationship with anger. They have learned that anger – our own and that of those we love – can be survived. They may see that anger can be clarifying, perhaps even bringing us closer together. This will likely help children to feel less avoidant of angry or aggressive feelings as they grow, giving them greater access to their own emotions, and helping them to be more attuned to other people’s.

A child that has not faced the fiery furnace of emotion may be unprepared to deal with upsetting experiences, or the natural frictions that occur in relationships with others. Metal and glass work sometimes need to undergo annealing – a process of heating and then cooling in a controlled way in order to make a material softer, more workable, and less brittle. Experiencing difficult feelings such as anger at or from a loving and trusted parent can serve as a kind of emotional annealing, allowing the child to become more resilient.

The Grimm’s tale “Frau Trude” can provide a fairy tale example of a psychological situation in which a child has never been forced to yield to limits, perhaps as a result of not being sufficiently exposed to parental anger. Such a child has not been exposed to “emotional annealing,” and may be easily burned once she comes into contact with strong affective experiences.

Frau Trude

Once upon a time there was a small girl who was strong willed and forward, and whenever her parents said anything to her, she disobeyed them. How could anything go well with her?

One day she said to her parents: “I have heard so much about Frau Trude. Someday I want to go to her place. People say such amazing things are seen there, and such strange things happen there, that I have become very curious.

Her parents strictly forbade her, saying: “Frau Trude is a wicked woman who commits godless acts. If you go there, you will no longer be our child.

But the girl paid no attention to her parents and went to Frau Trude’s place anyway.

When she arrived there, Frau Trude asked: “Why are you so pale?”

“Oh,” she answered, trembling all over, “I saw something that frightened me.”

“What did you see?”

“I saw a black man on your steps.”

“That was a charcoal burner.”

“Then I saw a green man.”

“That was a huntsman.”

“Then I saw a blood-red man.”

“That was a butcher.”

“Oh, Frau Trude, it frightened me when I looked through your window and could not see you, but instead saw the devil with a head of fire.”

“Aha!” she said. “So you saw the witch properly outfitted. I have been waiting for you and wanting you for a long time. Light the way for me now!”

With that she turned to girl into a block of wood and threw it into the fire. When it was thoroughly aglow she sat down next to it, and warmed herself by it, saying: “It gives such a bright light!”

The child in this story has not managed to come to terms with limitation. No matter what limits her parents set, she oversteps them. She is unprepared to meet the devouring archetypal forces that exist both within ourselves as well as out in the world. These forces can be overwhelming and destructive when they are not properly mediated. “Good enough” parents help mediate such strong emotional experiences for children in part through the every day experience of rupture and repair. When we become irritable or upset with a loved one or friend, we may say or do something that is hurtful, that temporarily breaks the sense of connection and simpatico we have with the other person. We may, for example, raise our voice at our child. In response, our child feels angry, upset, or afraid. When the conflict is passed, we reconnect with our child through hugging, talking, playing, or just being silly together. These kinds of ordinary interactions help children integrate a sense that strong feelings are a normal and even healthy part of life.

Next week, I will expand on the metaphor of “emotional annealing” and how it can lead to resilience.

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This article originally published on PsychCentral