When Parents Get Angry

March 25, 2021

Most parents get angry with their children frequently, and when we do, we often feel badly about it. While unrestrained parental rage can be damaging to a child, in recent posts, (see here and here) I’ve been taking a look at the potential positive side of getting angry with our kids. While this might seem counter intuitive, it’s important to remember that our children learn about how to handle emotions in part through our modeling. If we never get angry, our children won’t get practice in learning to deal with this difficult but important emotion. On the other hand, when we get angry but take care to reconnect with our child and make a repair for any hurt we might have caused, our children learn that anger is survivable. They learn that people who love each other sometimes disagree and may even have strong feelings about these disagreements, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still love each other.

Psychologists have noted that relational ruptures are commonplace between parent and child. Even when we try our hardest to be attuned to our child and his needs, there will always be times when we are distracted, busy – or irritable. At these times, our child may have the momentary experience of knowing we are “out of sync” with him. We don’t understand him, or are not attending to his needs. “Good enough” parents have frequent moments of empathic rupture, but they do their best to repair these momentary mis attunements. We might apologize for losing our temper, and take extra time to reconnect through a playful tickle.

Last week, I suggested that the normal parental rhythm of rupture and repair served as a kind of “emotional annealing,” helping kids to become more resilient to different emotions – including their own. One of the most important jobs we have as parents is to teach our children how to manage their feelings – how to experience and value emotions, while not becoming overwhelmed by them. The experience of rupture and repair that occurs when there is an angry exchange can be a part of this important lesson.

A story from Ancient Greece can serve as a poignant illustration of how the right kind of challenging emotional experiences can help a child build resilience. The myth of Demeter and Persephone is one that is likely familiar to most readers, but many may not know the story of Demeter and Demphon as described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. After her daughter’s abduction, Demeter looked everywhere for her, but could not find her. In her grief, Demeter disguised herself and hired herself out as a nanny to a wealthy family. There she cared for the infant boy Demophon. She grew so fond of the child that she decided that she would make him immortal. Every night, after other members of the family went to bed, Demeter would bank the boy in the fire as if he were a log, burning away those parts of him that were mortal. This process needed several nights. She was almost done with it when the boy’s mother wandered into the room, and shrieked in horror to see her son baking in the fire. Demeter then revealed herself in her full goddess glory, and Demophon’s mother was shocked to know she had been honored by the goddess in this way.

This part of the myth is both beautiful and strange, and the meaning of it is complex. It does, however, provide an image of something we somehow sense to be true – that burning in life’s fires in a controlled way where we do not become overwhelmed and are protected and cared for can bring about greater resilience.

My purpose with these recent posts on anger is to encourage parents to feel more compassion toward themselves when they do find that they have lost their temper with their child. I hope these posts will give parents permission to forgive themselves, because only in doing so can we ensure that we will remain emotionally available to our kids. We can always strive to do better next time, but when we slip up and become angry, we can hopefully appreciate that even when we are not perfect, we may be offering our children valuable lessons.

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Photo by Paul Schafer on Unsplash