How Anger Rules Over Some Families
... and how everybody suffers as a result.
Posted August 4, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Some families find themselves forced to orient their home-life around one person's anger issues.
- Everybody in these families will develop coping mechanisms, but the source of the pain may never get addressed.
- Growing up in a home with an angry parent can create long-term issues including conflict aversion, an inability to process emotions, and stress.
Dad has a temper. Everybody in the family knows that to keep a calm house; nobody can upset Dad. Mom frequently reminds the kids not to upset their father and hides potential sources of stress from him like a bad report card, a car dent, or a financial setback. The kids know how to read his moods from little details—like the pitch of his voice or how loudly the front door closes. When they sense their father’s stress increasing, the kids walk on eggshells, taking up as little space as possible.
And when Dad inevitably explodes, the kids all quickly turn to their coping mechanisms. One child shuts down, becoming totally silent. Another slips out of the room and hides in their bedroom to read a book until things blow over. The third makes jokes to try to diffuse the tension. Mom, too, uses her coping mechanisms: placating, begging, smoothing things over, and when that does not work, escalating.
After the explosion, Dad leaves to spend time alone, and Mom checks on the kids. She explains to them that Dad is going through a hard time at work and not to be too hard on him. The kids tell her it’s OK and they understand. Later, when his mood has shifted, Dad re-emerges as his happy self, and the whole house sighs in relief. But it always happens again.
This is the profile of a family that orbits around the dad’s anger (to be clear, this scenario can happen with mothers too). And to them, it feels normal.
What's Happening Here
In this family, Dad’s anger rules the home. It is unpredictable, scary, and ever-present. To cope, the whole family strives to create a peaceful environment to limit the likelihood and ferocity of the next outburst.
Notice that in this family, everybody is held responsible for Dad’s emotions and actions—except Dad. Children are expected to keep themselves in check while Dad gets as angry as he wants. Mom simultaneously tries to protect her children from his moods by teaching them ways to avoid angering him, all the while reinforcing the idea that his anger is their responsibility.
Everybody in the family has developed coping skills. They shut down, stay small, or act out to try to manage the situation. And so the big picture never gets addressed.
None of this is easy. In some families, the most volatile family member is also the primary breadwinner, leaving the rest of the family beholden to their moods as part of the deal for financial security. And the family may fear for their physical safety if that anger continues to escalate.
As a result, nobody ever asks:
- Why is Dad allowed to continue acting like this?
- What would accountability look like here?
- Why isn’t Dad tasked with learning to find healthy coping mechanisms?
- What would it be like if Dad learned to channel his anger into other healthier outlets?
- What would it look like if the parents made a point of telling their children that they are not responsible for an adult’s feelings?
- What if Mom started setting boundaries with Dad (assuming she felt safe)?
The family can work harder and harder to control their own parts of the puzzle at great personal and collective cost. But only with Dad’s changed behavior and accountability will anything shift in the bigger picture.
What is the Long-Term Impact of Growing Up Like This?
I’ve heard versions of this household described dozens of times in my therapy sessions with now-adult children. What happens to adults who grew up in a house ruled by one person’s unchecked anger?
Some of my clients describe how they never learned to show their unhappiness because crying or overwhelm upset their volatile parent. They certainly never learned what healthy anger looks like or how to manage it. To them, anger itself is the enemy. This can lead to extreme conflict aversion, which impacts their ability to have healthy adult relationships that invariably include some conflict.
These clients describe becoming hyper-attuned to others’ emotions while learning to ignore their own experiences, creating a world in which they bend over backward to meet other people’s needs while treating their basic needs are “too much.” They struggle to set boundaries because they learned young that it was their job to accommodate others without ever taking themselves into account. And some enter platonic and romantic relationships in which they feel similarly shut down or abused, because those traits, displayed through anger, do not register as red flags. In fact, they feel a little like home.
And many of these adult children will downplay the impact. "It wasn't that bad," they explain. "My dad never hit me. He just got really upset." But as we see, a home like this can leave lasting scars. In the short term, the home becomes a place of chronic stress. In the long term, the anger’s implications echo down the generations, creating lasting issues for all those who endured it.
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