When the Parent’s Anger Complicates the Life of the Child

When the Parent’s Anger Complicates the Life of the Child

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The angry heart does not have to direct its frustration toward anyone to complicate that relationship. All the angry person has to do is stand in the vicinity of those who receive the spillover of their anger. Whether you’re mad at someone or intoxicating the room with your frustration, it will damage your redemptive goals with the casualties. Every partner, parent, pastor, and peer must learn to bring sinful anger into submission to Christ, or it will complicate the lives of others.

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Examine This First

Biffy is your typical eight-year-old kid. He laughs and plays, and he gets into trouble. Unfortunately, the “getting in trouble” part seems to be causing all the problems in their home, so I had to meet with Biff and Mable. We connected at the local Starbucks to talk through some of their parenting challenges with Biffy. While they were more interested in Biffy’s wrongs, I wanted to start in another place. I knew that parents of rebelling children often focus too quickly on the disruptive child, bypassing an essential step in the ongoing family problems.

Though all angry people are primarily responsible for their anger, it’s not uncommon that they received help in becoming angry, especially angry children. In counseling parlance, we call these shaping influences that impact a child’s early development for good or evil. I know that a great starting point and helpful way to think about this type of counseling case—problem-solving in a home—is to answer a few questions about the parents’ lives and marriage. So I asked them about them, particularly how they relate to Christ and each other.

If you have disobedient children, how would you answer these five questions? Perhaps talking about them with your spouse or a trusted friend would serve you well. Though you don’t want to forever hang out on the log in your eye, the humble truth-seeker will spend time there first before they go speck fishing.

  • How would you describe your relationship with the Lord?
  • How would you describe your spouse’s relationship with God?
  • How would you describe your relationship with your spouse?
  • How are you practically living out these relationships inside your home?
  • How is your spouse practically living out these relationships inside the home?

Engine Rebuild

Let me circle back for clarity’s sake; it is essential to remember that no parent is the cause of a child’s misbehavior (James 1:14-15). But it’s also critical not to overlook how parental behaviors shape young hearts. Parents are like the engine in the car. If you follow my metaphor, a properly functioning engine will make it run optimally. If the engine is defective, the vehicle cannot meet the designer’s intent. If you want your home to run at biblically optimal levels, you must address the engine first—the parents. If the parents are not right with God, whatever biblical advice and instruction they provide to their children will not ring true.

Though children can become God-centered, Christ-loving, Bible-guided adults despite their parents’ lack of modeling and biblical assistance, you do not want to take for granted that parents do not matter in a child’s life. Every child from a dysfunctional home will viscerally lament how they longed for parents who loved each other and provided a secure home environment conducive to nurturing growth. By unpacking the parent’s relationship with God and each other, you will gain insight into the car’s engine and functionality.

A counselor’s mindset cannot be suspicion or cynicism but a type of biblical discernment that understands the doctrines of hamartiology and anthropology. Are they doing all they can to help their child grow into Christlikeness? It would be best if you unearthed all that needs addressing to help a family become biblically whole. When it comes to a rebellious child like Biffy, your initial objective is to understand his primary influencers, Biff and Mable.

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The Anger Spectrum

After spending a few moments with Biff and Mable, it became apparent that they were angry parents. They were immediately reluctant to accept my assessment when I first brought it up. I get this reaction regularly when addressing angry hearts. Many Christians do not have clear-headed, biblically-derived definitions of sinful anger. Some of them play down their anger or rationalize it away as though more minor sins have a lesser impact on little hearts. Some believers have been angry for so long that they cannot see or hear themselves anymore.

Mercifully, Biff and Mable wanted to learn about what I was learning about them. They cautiously listened as I walked them through our Anger Spectrum, which revealed many behaviors that characterize how they related to each other and Biffy. I’ve listed a few angry words that did not initially fit their impulsive and narrow interpretation of anger. Their list is not exhaustive or in any particular order. As you roll through the list, see how many of them describe you, either episodically or as a pattern. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at the infographic to gain a broader perspective on the many manifestations of anger.

Impatience, Frustration, Slander, Dismissiveness, Irritation, Bitterness, Condemning, Criticism, Gossip, Aggravation, Apathy, Self-righteousness, Stubbornness, Lecturing, Exasperation, Hand gestures, Raising the voice, Rolling of the eyes, Huffing under the breath, Silent treatment

Their Wit’s End

As we continued to delve into how their anger manifests in their home, it became apparent that Mable is an overworked, stay-at-home mom. Mable manages her anger by leeching out only a few “episodes” during the week. She is tired during her waking moments and rarely rests while sleeping. Alternately, Biff is an unfulfilled and overworked production worker. He’s discontented, or, as he knows now, he’s an angry man who has not found his niche in life. He works to live a utilitarian view of work that stirs longings for something more spectacular than a rote nine-to-five existence.

During their week, there are many times when their anger comes to the surface. The most apparent time is when Biffy messes up something, which points to Biff’s dissatisfaction with life; he feels as though he missed his calling, but he could not come up with anything when pressed on what his calling should be. Both of them missed the connection between Biffy’s anger and their discontentedness. They also did not see how their patterns and episodes worked together to complicate what was happening in Biffy’s soul.

The family was in a sin cycle that looped from an angry kid to angry parents and back again. Because they compartmentalized their “general state of anger,” they missed the interconnection to Biffy and how they were complicating his life too. Thus, when Biffy pushed their buttons, and Biff and Mable reacted harshly to him, they never addressed their sinful buttons as they worked with Biffy about his anger. When two or more individuals are in this type of sin cycle, they must not compartmentalize what is happening, or they will embrace the victim-sinner construct that will only perpetuate the dysfunction.

Dynamics of Anger

What Biff and Mable began to see is how Biffy was a people-pleaser, and there was nobody in his life that he wanted approval from more than his parents. Thus, when they reacted in anger toward him, it amplified his soul noise, and because he was immature, he could not process it biblically, so he acted out. Hence, the sin cycle was running rampant in their family.

When Biffy was younger, he was more optimistic about pleasing his parents; he thought he could meet their expectations. Today he is more exasperated than hopeful, which is part of the reason he acts out (Ephesians 6:4). Biblically speaking, the fear of man (Proverbs 29:25) has captured his heart (Galatians 6:1). Biff and Mable are only learning now how their angry hearts, even if they are not directing the anger toward their son, perpetuate anxiety in him. The mantra is that fussy parents make insecure children.

Kids in these homes do not know how to process what their parents are doing except to internalize it—fear through insecurity—or externalize it—anger by acting out. In Biffy’s case, he externalizes his hurt by acting out in anger. The ongoing anger patterns are piling onto Biffy’s pre-existing insecurities. Insecure lives need stability from the adults in the room to help settle their timid souls. Biff and Mable are complicating their son’s life. Biffy has spent many years walking on eggshells, hoping not to displease them. Today, he’s at the place of giving up.

A Complex Relationship

Fortunately, the light came on for Biff and Mable. Their humility opened the door for God’s favor (James 4:6), which effectuated the beginnings of change. They became acutely aware of what they had been doing to Biffy. Even though not directed at him, their general state of anger due to their respective immature relationships with God put him in a vulnerable position. It complicated his pre-existing fear of man. When you mix a people-pleaser (Biffy) with angry people (Biff and Mable), the “insecure acceptance addict” will be on edge, never knowing if he has the angry person’s approval.

Biff and Mable will have to hold their culpability and Biffy’s responsibility in the proper tension. They were piling on to his pre-existing problem, making it impossible for them to help him. Their fear-based boy lives on the defensive, continually tightening up or shutting down as a matter of self-reliant self-preservation. His approval drive was so strong that sometimes he would lie about what he was doing because he was scared of how his parents would react to him.

He could sense in moments of tension that the wrong response meant disapproval. He erected a wall—through deceit—to protect himself from their rejection. Do you see how the complicatedness of sin can pretzel the mind to the point where people who want to love each other stay frustrated with each other? These complexities added layers of complication that circumvented any possibility of grace-filled conversations that led them to redemptive, transformative results.

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First Step

There are many steps to wholeness that will take Biff and Mable years to accomplish. With a well-paced trajectory and accomplishable goals in view, the first thing for them to do is recognize and own their anger—their hearts’ general state and how they episodically respond to their son. My point here is not to discourage anyone who is beginning down this path but a call to sit down and count the cost so the early disappointments do not defeat the long-term hope we have in the gospel.

In counseling, we call this a complicating problem. Biff and Mable have been piling on to a pre-existing issue with Biffy. To help their son, they must reign in their anger; it’s not helping. More succinctly, they have to repent. As they begin to understand what is happening inside their hearts (James 4:1-3), they can identify and isolate the idolatries tempting them to become angry. Their anger is not because of Biffy but because of something broken in their relationships with God (and perhaps with each other). Though they will not have a perfect home, they could have a repentive home, which is always the goal. Some things are not right in their souls, so they must begin vertically with God, not horizontally with Biffy.

At some future time, they need to talk to Biffy about their anger and what their plans are to change. Biffy needs to hear them owning something that he already knows about them. It will go a long way to diffuse the tension in his heart if he has assurances—backed up by measurable changes—as they recognize their part in the family’s problems. The rule of thumb is the sphere of offense and the sphere of confession should be similar. Biff and Mable must admit the transgressions and confess them to the offended parties.

Put Off, Put On

In addition to owning and repenting of their sins (Ephesians 4:22), Biff and Mable must go beyond their confession, which includes putting on a new kind of behavior (Ephesians 4:24). Their anger (communication) has been de-motivating Biffy. Now they can motivate him by encouragement, e.g., identifying evidence of the Lord’s good work in his life. When he does something right, they should identify it, isolate it, and tell him that he is doing a good thing. They want to be encouragers more than discouragers.

Biffy will be cautious of the changes in his parents’ lives, which is okay. Part of his apprehensiveness will be the residual fear of them becoming angry with him. Biff and Mable must realize that their repentance does not mean their son will be equally repentive or receptive to his “new parents.” They also need to know that their repentance will not be perfect; they will blow it from time to time because the angry heart does not disappear like flipping a switch.

However, their assured future failure will provide the perfect context to prove their seriousness about changing. When Biff and Mable get angry again, they can repent again. Their repentance will prove their seriousness about change and the power of God’s grace in their lives. As they live out this penitent state, they can come alongside Biffy to help him overcome his life-dominating sin of the fear of man, which is at the heart of his anger issues. There should be a softening of Biffy’s heart within a few weeks. The rule of thumb is that you’re looking for the presence of change, not its perfection.

Call of Action

  1. Describe your redemptive efforts with your children as you examine your life, marriage, and family.
  2. Are you quicker to pile on to their problem by choosing a preferred form of anger?
  3. Are you quick to judge the log in your eye before you address the speck in the other person?
  4. Think of a time when you “disqualified” yourself from parenting your children because you had sinned against them. What did you do to “re-qualify” yourself?
  5. How do those closest to you experience you when they do something wrong?
  6. Have you caused any unresolved conflict with your children? What do you need to do to be at peace with them (Romans 12:18)?
  7. How do you guard your heart against a legalistic mindset that says, “If I do [this], I expect them to become [that]”? Talk about how you’re willing to be Jesus to them regardless of their responses to you.

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