When is Anger at Children Healthy?

March 18, 2021

Burning with rage at our children is a nearly universal experience, and yet it is one that most moms feel great shame and remorse about. It is frightening to find ourselves capable of wrath and perhaps even violent impulses toward those whom we love so greatly. Could it be okay or possibly even important to feel fiery, hot anger toward our kids?

Jung’s concept of the archetype can be helpful in allowing us to come to terms with this dark side of ourselves. Jung posited that there are inborn patterns that precede experience, priming us to respond to certain experiences or images. He called these patterns archetypes, and always stressed that an encounter with archetypal energy will leave our conscious personality feeling dwarfed. According to Jung, the archetype of the Great Mother is one of the big ones – turning up eternally in art, myth, and dreams. Archetypes, importantly, always have two poles, a positive and a negative one, and one pole cannot exist without the other. When the positive aspect of the mother archetype gets constellated, the negative aspect is never very far away.

This makes a lot of sense in practical terms. When we become a mother, we fall deeply in love with our child. We feel protective, maternal, and nurturing. But it is precisely because we love our child so deeply that we can feel such depths of rage and frustration toward him or her. Then for a moment, we may embody the dark aspect of the archetype – the Negative Mother.

While most images of the archetype in Western culture show the positive and negative aspects split and personified by different mythological figures, other cultures have retained both poles of the archetype in one image. In Hindu mythology, Kali is both the giver and taker of life, she who gives birth to new life, but is also capable of devouring her offspring.

We all have both potentials within us, and it can be frightening and confusing to get in touch with our potential for rage and darkness. Verbal abuse can be very damaging, as our children are likely to take in the negative things we say to them, and those thoughts may become part of their self-concept. But is our anger always negative? I think not.

There are many possible benefits to our children experiencing us as capable of anger at times, and I aim to explore some of these in upcoming blog posts. To start, what might it look like if we never got angry with our child? Would that be a good thing?

When my daughter was four, I befriended Beth, who also had a four-year-old daughter named Mindi. Beth was a very thoughtful and intelligent person who herself had been subjected to much abusive treatment as a child by a raging, alcoholic father. She confided in me that she had felt very damaged by this, and had sworn when she became pregnant that she would never speak harshly to her child. She told me about the tremendous self-restraint she had cultivated in order to keep this promise to herself.

One day, my daughter and I were visiting Beth and Mindi at their home. While my daughter and Mindi were playing, Beth went upstairs for a moment. With her mother was out of sight, Mindi pushed my daughter, knocking her down. I witnessed the incident quite clearly. Mindi’s aggression was entirely unprovoked, as far as I could tell. My daughter began crying. “It’s not okay to push someone, Mindi,” I said, while tending to my daughter. At that moment, Beth returned. “Mindi doesn’t push,” she answered me, matter of factly. I was quite flummoxed and wasn’t sure what to say.

It was clear that Beth genuinely believed that her daughter was incapable of aggression. It was as if she had so effectively cut herself off from her own aggression that she could not imagine it to exist in her child. Anger had been so effectively banished from consciousness in this family that it was free to roam unchecked in the unconscious, behind mom’s back, as it were. It struck me that Mindi was not being helped by having her aggressiveness erased so completely. She never got to see her mother angry, and therefore never learned that anger can be normal and healthy, or that people can survive being angry at one another.

The incident with Beth and Mindi recalled for me a Grimm’s fairy tale about a “too good mother.” The tale is called “Sweet Porridge.”

There was a poor but good little girl who lived alone with her mother, and they no longer had anything to eat. So the child went into the forest, and there an aged woman met her who was aware of her sorrow, and presented her with a little pot, which when she said, “Cook, little pot, cook,” would cook good, sweet porridge, and when she said, “Stop, little pot,” it ceased to cook. The girl took the pot home to her mother, and now they were freed from their poverty and hunger, and ate sweet porridge as often as they chose. Once on a time when the girl had gone out, her mother said, “Cook, little pot, cook.” And it did cook and she ate till she was satisfied, and then she wanted the pot to stop cooking, but did not know the word. So it went on cooking and the porridge rose over the edge, and still it cooked on until the kitchen and whole house were full, and then the next house, and then the whole street, just as if it wanted to satisfy the hunger of the whole world, and there was the greatest distress, but no one knew how to stop it. At last when only one single house remained, the child came home and just said, “Stop, little pot,” and it stopped and gave up cooking, and whosoever wished to return to the town had to eat his way back.

This is a story of a mother who is “too much of a good thing.” It hints at how destructive and dangerous that can be. The mother in this story doesn’t know how to say “stop,” and as such the sweet porridge threatens the whole town. It is anger that helps us to find our “no,” that helps us put our foot down and put an end to that which doesn’t serve us or is destructive.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the destructive action in the story involves a pot that is boiling over. Beth could not allow her own anger into her relationship with her daughter. Where did it go? Perhaps it boiled over in sweetness, filling the room with a sticky ooze that doesn’t leave room to breathe. Beth was unable to say “no” to Mindi’s inappropriate aggression, and therefore her daughter was not getting help in learning to contain these impulses. Some anger on Beth’s part would likely have helped Mindi to metabolize her own entirely normal hostility, which likely would have felt relieving to the child.

Soon after this incident, I found my own “no,” and stopped spending time with Beth and Mindi. Though I appreciated Beth’s intelligence and depth, I wasn’t willing let my daughter become a victim to the over-flowing sweet porridge that ruled the psychological dynamic in her home.

In next week’s blog, I’ll explore more about how anger and aggression can be a healthy and necessary part of our relationship with our children.

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This post was originally published on PsychCentral