Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes

CHAPTERS: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

Chapter 5 – Anger without insult

The Sound of Fury

The English language has a rich supply of expressions to give vent to all nuances of anger: We can be uncomfortable, displeased, annoyed, irritated, frustrated, aggravated, dismayed, exasperated, provoked, chagrined, indignant, aghast, angry, mad, enraged, and furious. Anger colors our vision: We turn white with anger, and purple with rage. We see red. We cannot see straight. We go blind. We are livid with anger. Our eyes spit fire. Anger affects our whole bodies. We flush, we frown, we clench our fists. Our nostrils quiver, our ears tingle, and our blood boils. Our whole body shakes. We have a “conniption fit.” When angry, we become unlike ourselves: We fume, we smolder, we sizzle, we stew, we boil over, we flare up, we explode. We blow our top. We blow our stack. We fly off the handle. We hit the ceiling, and raise the roof. We breathe fire and fury. We rave and rant. We are full of consternation and we feel acrimonious.

Attitudes Toward Anger

Among the paradoxes of everyday life none is more surprising than our attitude toward anger. We have such a rich anger vocabulary. Yet we have such mixed feelings about anger. We cultivate it and celebrate it even as we mistrust it. We often dislike it in ourselves and disallow it in our children.

How can we help our children deal with inevitable anger? A group of parents discussed this question. They recalled their own childhood and related how their parents had reacted to turbulent emotions – to resentment, anger and hate.

A: My father simply forbade me to be angry. I can still hear him say, “Who gave you the right to be mad at your mother? Who do you think you are?”

B: My father was nicer. Whenever I was angry, he explained to me that I was not really angry. “You must be tired and upset. That's why you were so unkind to your brother. Rest a little and you'll feel better.”

C: My mother told me that there were two of me – an angel and a devil. Whenever I became angry she said, “It's the devil in you that's acting up.”

D: Whenever I said something mean my mother would say, “Nice children don't talk like that. You must learn to rise above such feelings.” Then I felt even worse.

E: My mother suppressed any signs of anger. She hated harsh words and ugly scenes. I remember I once told my sister that I hated her. My mother almost fainted. She warned me never to use such words. “You asked for a sister,” she said, “and now that you have one, you must love her – always.” To this day, I still despise my sister.

F: When I was angry, my father used to make fun of me. “Temper, temper, temper,” he would say. It used to make me more furious. Then he would punish me. I spent many hours in my room, miserable, defiant, and wishing everyone were dead.

These recollections are sad. They tell of good intentions and lamentable results. There is a lesson in these stories. It is futile to address angry feelings with reasoning, explaining, denying, threatening, or moralizing. Angry feelings do not vanish when banished. Strong emotions, like turbulent rivers, cannot be reasoned with, or talked out of existence. Their force must be recognized and respected, and their fury diverted and channeled. To do otherwise is to court disaster.

Turning Anger into Action

Our anger has a purpose; it shows our concern. Failure to get angry at certain moments indicates indifference, not love. Those who love cannot avoid anger. This does not mean that our teenagers can withstand torrents of rage and floods of violence. It does mean that they can benefit from anger which says: “Enough is enough. There are limits to my tolerance.”

It is best not to be too patient with our teenagers. Instead of trying to hide our irritation, we can express it effectively.

How to be Angry

Instead of trying to suppress anger altogether, parents can express it in nondestructive ways. This expression should bring some relief to the parents, some insight to the teenager, and no harmful aftereffects to either of them. In expressing anger, we consciously need to avoid creating waves of resentment and revenge. We want to get our point across, and then let the storm subside.

To deal with times of stress, we should acknowledge these truths:

  1. We accept the fact that in the natural course of events teenagers will make us uncomfortable, annoyed, irritated, even angry.
  2. We are entitled to express our feelings, with one limitation. No matter how angry we are, we do not insult teenagers' personalities and character.

There are certain concrete ways to deal with our anger. The first step in any annoying situation is to describe clearly how it affects us, adding nothing else.

When Gary , age fifteen, started clinking his fork on a plate, his mother said, “The noise makes me very uncomfortable.” Gary gave me several more clinks and stopped. This method was effective because mother did not tell her son what to do. She described her discomfort and took it for granted that he would respond. Compare this approach to a more prevalent one.

“What's the matter with you? Don't you have anything better to do? Can't you sit still? Do you have to give me a headache? Stop it this minute, P-L-E-A-S-E!”

It must be added that teens cannot stop on a dime. It is necessary for them to go on with their misbehavior for a little while. It takes time to stop on one's own accord. The following incident illustrates the point.

Fourteen-year-old Gideon was playing basketball near his home early one Sunday morning. The bouncing of the ball woke up his father. He said: “I wanted to sleep until ten o'clock today. The ball woke me up.” “I'm sorry,” said Gideon. He bounced the ball twice more and left. Father realized that the additional bouncing was a face-saving device. Gideon demonstrated to himself that he stopped of his own volition, not because of orders.

What if our teenager continues the annoying behavior? If our short protests and long faces have not brought relief then we express our feelings louder and stronger.

“It is annoying.”

“It makes me feel angry.”

The purpose of these statements is to alert the teen to our distress. They serve as a warning about the limits of our tolerance. More often than not, the mere statements of our irritation will bring results.

Sudden Anger

What if we are pushed beyond the brink of our endurance? What if our anger flares up suddenly and we are all-fired-up and ready to pounce. At such times:

Describe what you see.

Describe what you feel.

Described what needs to be done.

Do not attack the person.

Roland, age fifteen, took a bath. Later, mother found several white towels all crumpled on the wet floor. She was upset, and gave vent to her anger.

MOTHER: When I see good towels on a wet floor, I get mad! Towels do not belong on the floor! They belong on the rack.

Mother made her point loud and clear. She did not insult, nor did she attack her son's personality and character. She did not say: “What are you – a slob? Your girl friend should only see the way you really are – messy and inconsiderate.” By foregoing the insults, mother was spared the humiliating task of apologizing and explaining: “I'm sorry I called you a slob. I didn't mean what I said.”

“It Burns Me Up!”

Ginger, age sixteen, was frequently late to dinner. This time the meal was on the plate but she was still in her room. Father became frustrated and expressed it openly: “It burns me up when I call you for dinner and get no answer. I get so mad I fume inside. I say to myself, I cooked good meal. I deserve some appreciation, not aggravation.” Ginger came down in a hurry. The conversation at the dinner table flowed freely. No one felt crushed. Everyone enjoyed the meal.

“It Puts Me in an Embarrassing Position.”

Greg, age seventeen, asked his mother to make an appointment for him with the dentist. He did not keep it. When mother learned about it, she was upset. She said: “I am angry. When you ask me to make an appointment for you and don't keep it, and don't cancel it, it puts me in an embarrassing position.”

Greg apologized. He felt genuinely sorry that the appointment had slipped his mind. He himself called the dentist and rescheduled the appointment. This was the end of the incident. Mother felt relieved, Greg felt regretful. No one felt insulted or devastated. Communication between mother and son was not cut off.

“It Makes Me Feel Unpleasant.”

George, age fourteen, entertained friends in the living room. They left without cleaning up. When he returned, mother said: “When I see cards, soda bottles, and potato chips scattered all over the floor, it makes me feel unsettled inside. It actually makes me angry. The room needs to be cleaned up after playing.” “O.K., cool it, Mom. I got the message,” George responded, as he began to clean up the mess.

“I'm Tired of Your Acrimonious Attitudes” – will individuals know this?

Samuel, age thirteen, had been fighting with his older sister, hurling insults at her. Father walked into the room and said: “I'm tired of your relentless hostility and acrimonious attitudes.” Samuel and his sister looked at one another and burst into loud laughter. The fight was over.

“We're So Furious; We're All Upset!”

Josephine, age fifteen, promised to be home from the school dance before midnight. She returned at 2A.M. Her parents were frantic. They expressed their anger, concern, and disappointment in no uncertain terms. But they did not cut her to pieces. They did not call her names. They did not attack her personality. They did not insult her character. Here is a sample of their statements:

“We were worried to death when you didn't show up on time.”

“You can't imagine what crossed our minds.”

“We're so furious; we're all upset. When you promise to be home by midnight, we expect you at twelve o'clock. It's unfair to put us in such a situation. When you see that you are going to be late – call us.”

“We have such mixed emotions now. We're relieved that you are safe, but angry that you were so late.”

For further discussion of the problems of dating see Chapter 9.

Anger without Insult

To express anger without insult is not easy. It goes against natural inclinations and ingrained habits. But we must learn a new language that will enable us to give vent to anger without damaging those we love. Parents who have mastered the new language have gained greater control over themselves. They feel capable of expressing their angry emotion effectively and helpfully. The following examples illustrate the constructive use of anger by parents.

“There Will Be No Charging in Department Stores without Permission.”

This incident was reported by a mother after an angry confrontation with her teenage daughter:

“Anger without insult is a most helpful concept. It defines my role as a mature adult. It also saves time and temper. I came to the conclusion that there is simply not enough time in life to indulge ourselves in hostile comments. It takes too much time to undo the damage and too much energy to work through the guilt. In dealing with difficult situations, I give myself inner directions: ‘What is the main message? Say it directly! Make clear what must be done. Don't confuse the issues.'

“Here is an example: I walked into the house Sunday night after having been away for the weekend. My fifteen-year-old, Gloria, pounced on me: ‘Mother! Wait until you see the dress I bought. It's so gorgeous! I charged it to your account.' Sparks electrified my brain. My mind was flooded with thought like “You have one helluva nerve!', ‘Where do you get the gall!', and ‘Who do you think you are!' But I said, ‘There will be no more charging in department stores without permission!'”

GLORIA ( defensively ): But I didn't steal it – what are you so mad about?

MOTHER ( focusing on main message ): There is to be no charging in department stores without permission!

“I went into my bedroom and closed the door. I needed time to figure our how to tell her that she couldn't keep that ‘frilly lavender thing' that she had displayed and was about to try on. It was a mini-length ruffled horror, with a plum velvet sash, that looked like a masquerade costume. She planned to wear it to school. Gloria knocked on the door saying: ‘Please open up! Wait till you see it on me. It fits perfectly and I look so feminine and romantic.'

“I opened the door and ‘that color' hit me. I was tired and irritated but I also knew that she had been waiting for me since Saturday and there was no putting it off.

“Again I clung to my motivation and skills. The action at hand was to return the dress without threatening her sense of taste. I remarked: ‘I can see why you're so taken with the dress but it's inappropriate for school, and too expensive.' ‘But isn't the color gorgeous?' she said. I felt as if a vise had closed in around me. I swallowed once and took a stab at honesty. ‘Some people like that color,' I said. ‘It's not one of my favorites.' ‘Why!' she attacked, ‘you love that color.' ‘It's not one of my favorite colors for clothes, but I do like to use it in my paintings,' I replied.

“At this point she was ready for a philosophical argument, but I kept it to the main point. ‘I can see how much you love that dress. It's not going to be easy for you to return it. Could you do it tomorrow afternoon?' ‘No, I'll have to do it in the evening,' she said slowly, and left the room, after bidding me good night.”

“It Makes Me Uncomfortable.”

This episode was told by a mother of a sixteen-year-old girl.

“My daughter often tends to ‘put me on.' She refers in a kidding way to things that annoy me. After one such remark I said, ‘That kind of talk makes me uncomfortable.' The next time she started to say something in that vein, she stopped and said, ‘I forgot, Mommy doesn't like that.”

“There is No Place for Retaliation in Our House.”

Roy , age fifteen, pushed the mattress off his brother's bed in retaliation for an insult. Father intervened. In a stern voice he said: “There is no place for acts of retaliation in our home. It is against our cherished values.” The boys looked at their father in disbelief. This was the end of what could have become an endless argument.

A Letter to Express Feelings

Some parents find it helpful to put their feelings in writing. The following letter is and example of effective communication of irritations and expectations.

Dear Thelma,

I am writing to you because I want to be clear without creating an argument. This morning I was looking forward to sleeping late. This was the one morning this week I had the opportunity. I have always felt proud that my children are capable of getting off to school without needing supervision. This morning was not an example of behavior I appreciate.

Please respond in writing.

Love,

Mom

Learning Better Ways

It is not easy to change one's habitual mode of expressing feelings. The logic of respectful communication is not autocratic, the words come reluctantly. New ways involve struggle, effort and determination. Here is how a mother described the stages in her process of change:

  1. You insult your child. You think about it and it bothers you.
  2. You hear yourself again making cutting comments. You listen helplessly as the words come out of you.
  3. You know you are about to make an insulting remark. Still, you are unable to stop yourself. Real irritation with self sets in. You make a firm mental note to improve.
  4. An annoying situation arises again. You can't use the old way. You still don't know how to use the new way. Something feeble and peculiar comes out of you.
  5. You feel annoyed with yourself, and you review the situation again. You say to yourself, “I should have said…” You review it several times.
  6. Now you are almost eager for a crisis to come so that you can use your new approach. You get your chance soon enough. This time you are prepared. Though the language is new, the tone is right. Everyone is surprised. But the method is not quite part of you yet.
  7. You begin to express all nuances of anger with assurance and authority, without insult or attack. This new approach is becoming part of your personality. You play it like a musician.
  8. Joy, oh joy, the children reflect your behavior and your words.
  9. Alas, you are only human. You make mistakes. Only part of the time you have the energy to use this approach. With all your skill and good will, there are still those painful moments when nothing works, when you feel helpless and discouraged.
  10. You recover. You continue to experiment and to learn. You say to yourself: “No method is perfect, but it's the best I've got.”

For helpful ideas for dealing with anger, see Anger Kills, written by Redford Williams.


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