Angry Kids, Angry Parents

Last week, we were all invited into a particularly nasty father-daughter dispute, via Facebook and various social media. As many of you know by now, a fifteen year-old, North Carolina girl posted a rebellious rant on Facebook, essentially a public tantrum, lamenting the way she feels she is mistreated by her parents. She thought her parents were blocked from her Facebook page. She was wrong. Her father, Tommy Jordan, discovered the post, and retaliated with one of his own, a video in which he recites her post, and then shoots nine “exploding hollow point” rounds into her computer.

Within a week, the YouTube video had been viewed over twenty-four million times and debates ensued about Facebook, wayward children, and the best ways to parent in the age of social media. But I think most of the debate missed the mark. This episode was not ultimately about unruly kids and parenting decisions. No, it was entirely about anger: the deep, rebellious anger of a kid who doesn’t want to be a kid anymore and who wants to be heard, and the cold-subtle rage of a parent who will go to great lengths to be in control and to feel respected.

I’m pretty convinced of something, and watching this father and daughter publicly rage at each other confirmed it. I think we’re all pretty messed up about our anger. I think we carry around a ton of it, and I don’t think we have any idea what to do with it.

For some of us, anger has been the language of our lives; the people who were in charge had no other tongue, and we never learned any other way to speak. And so, you have spent much of your life squarely in the middle of your anger, nurturing it and wielding it in an effort to dominate and control others. There is often a white-hot word burning in the middle of your brain—respect. It’s what your authority figures demanded of you. You were like a fuel pump, dispensing respect in a drive-by fashion, feeling used and mostly forgotten, and now it is your turn to get filled up. So, when a person cuts you off in traffic, or that kid of yours knocks you off your pedestal, the anger isn’t just red, it’s white—blinding white. And you will be reclaiming that respect you are owed in any fashion necessary.

Or perhaps you lived your life underneath the thumb of anger, and you developed a deep, smoldering sense of injustice. You were like a sponge, soaking up the anger of everyone around you, and there was no way you deserved to be saturated in that way. But now, you see the injustice everywhere. You rage when the kids mistreat you with their noise, you are convinced your wife is trying to bankrupt you with the most recent purchase, everyone else’s promotion is a crime against you, the kids’ constant demands for more, and more, and more, feel like a verdict you don’t deserve. So, your life becomes a courtroom, where you are the furious judge handing down verdicts, naming everyone else the bad guy and nursing a sense that the unfairness of it all will never get corrected.

For others of us, anger was treated like a four-letter word. You were taught that feeling and expressing anger is bad, evil, or worse. You learned that the people you were most angry at, your parents and authority figures, couldn’t handle your anger, whether they demonstrated this by trying to immediately fix it and make it go away, or by burying a clip full of bullets in your laptop. And when we have to deny our anger by burying it inside, it can wreak a quiet kind of havoc. We may become like two people, outwardly placid, composed, even unflappable, while inwardly we eye the broiling cauldron of emotion that is always lapping at the edges. We become anxious about our anger, afraid it will boil over, convinced that when it does there is no healthy way to feel or express any of it. Or, not having any place that we can safely express the hurt and the anger, we may direct it at the only safe target—ourselves. We demean ourselves, and we become ashamed of the people we have convinced ourselves that we are, and we become depressed, and no anti-depressant ever seems to completely free us from it. Or, we discover that we alternate between strenuous, draining efforts to suppress the anger, and moments of rage that surprise us and everyone around us, because anger is a part of the human experience and it cannot be denied forever.

And yet.

I’m also convinced that anger gets a bad rap. I think we all need to feel our anger a lot more, but in ways that are healthy for us and for the people we love. I think there are plenty of times when we need to actually act from our anger, as well. You see, anger is the perfectly valid response when a line has been crossed and a wrong has been committed. When our fears paralyze us, leaving us exposed, anger protects us from predators. Anger gives us the energy to set boundaries when nothing else can. When we have things we lose and we need to grieve them, anger will be a part of the process, a healthy part, and there is no way to get through the grief without passing through the anger. Put simply, if you are human, there are several guarantees: you will be born, you will die, and in between you will breathe and you will feel anger. What do we do with that?

Well, we begin by understanding that our experience of anger is usually messed up because it originated within a relationship in which there were only two available roles: the role of a kid who either quietly submits or angrily rebels, and the role of an authority figure whose anger is used for domination and control.  Our vision of anger is born blurry, and we need corrective lenses. Because the anger we learned early was broken anger. And anger doesn’t have to be broken. It can be healthy. Feeling it in a safe place and in an honest way can feel like being unshackled from chains you didn’t even know you were dragging (I thought I was crazy for feeling it). Feeling it in this way, you discover that the rage has barnacles, things that have grown attached to it, like sadness, loneliness, and fear (I thought I was the only one who felt this). Feeling it is like opening the shades and letting light into a dark space where the monsters sleep underneath the bed: it had such power while the darkness ruled, but the morning light brings a sense of relief and freedom (I don’t have to feel this anymore).

Not many of us have a place where we are given the permission to experience anger. And, really, we need permission. We need someone who can handle it, and even invites it. Sometimes, the therapeutic space is the only place in the world that will allow it, that can handle it, especially when the anger has been festering for years and, at first, it’s going to be white-hot and broiling and have all sorts of other thoughts and feelings attached to it. We may even feel and act like children at first, but that’s okay, because we are feeling it and acting it with a person who has a vision for the adult that we can become.

And what will our anger look like when we have matured into it, when we no longer suppress it and we no longer use it like a weapon? Last week, a wise man reminded me that, when that happens, the anger comes, but it comes slowly, and it wants to listen before responding, and it asks of itself how much of this is justified and how much do I need to take responsibility for myself? It doesn’t act like a judge or a conqueror, and it doesn’t hide away like a victim or a slave. It invites. It invites honesty, relationship, connection with the people we love, and the invitation is a welcome one. It’s an awesome thing to sit in a room with a parent and a teen, to watch the parent say, “Wow, you’re really angry, and I’m angry, too. I want to hear more about why you’re angry.” If I was a gambling man, I’d bet every time that the kid’s eyes don’t stay dry for long. That the frustration and sadness wells up into relief and that the tears are like a wave washing away the anger. Kids who have that experience aren’t likely to post their angry rants on Facebook, because they already have a place where their feelings are getting a “thumbs up,” and they’re getting meaningful “comments” from the people who matter most.

And when anger happens like that, you might even save yourself a few bullets.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • ktina1

    I have a hard time with this one, and I think I’m having a hard time agreeing with you for once. I thought it was a country man’s way of teaching his daughter a lesson. We may not all understand it, but it’s just the same as selling her computer and making sure she doesn’t use it for a long time. Only, this sends a bigger message. One she won’t soon forget. That’s the problem with parenting today. We ground our children for a horrendous act, then they are ungrounded a few weeks later, telling their friends they don’t even remember why they were grounded in the first place, and then their friends feed their anger at their parents by supporting their friend. Teenagers have become so spoiled in every aspect. I see it every day, and I ask myself, “were my friends and i like this when we were this age?” the answer is no. We weren’t. Society has caused children to believe they have to grow up so fast, but hasn’t taught them how to do that. So, they take on this maturity they think they have because it faces them everywhere, but it comes out wrong. Thats a lot for a child to face, and a parent. I think we often judge too quickly at other people’s acts when we don’t know what goes on around the scenes. I know I do it. And we don’t know what other kind of parenting he did behind the scenes. Yes, he could have been cruel, but he also could have given her a hug, and said, “no matter what you did, we still love you.” I thought about this for days after I first saw it. And at first thinking he acted as immaturely as she did, I realized he finally acted in a way many of us should be. He didn’t beat her (we hope), he didn’t ground her from socializing, which I think is wrong, but he taught her a lesson in a way she will remember. The bullets were a bit much, but he is a “southern boy.” ;-)

    • Tim

      Hi Ktina,
      I think I am on with the doc on this one. I’ve been on both sides. The bullets were not only a bit much, but since that laptop belonged to the girl, there will now be a part of that poor girl that feels like she is the one that got shot. Secondly, since when is a child’s expression of her emotions against the rules. Oh wait…..they had swear words, and her emotions showed a lack of respect. Well she most likely learned that from her parents, and then reinforced again when her dad shot her laptop.
      There is a book called Dare to Love, by Heather Forbes from the “Beyond Consequences Institute. I highly recommend it.
      By the way, I lived through a very tramautic childhood, 2 divorces, involved in a gang, grew up in las vegas, dealt drugs and I live with anger like its a cancer living in my brain and I drag around all day. It wasn’t until a therapist finally listened to me and let me express it all, that I have learned to live with my anger in more constructive and positive way.
      I am now a father of 4 in a happy home. I listen to them and talk to them and lay on the bed with and sympathize with them and teach them with love the value of work and study and learning. I teach them about the flow of money and they work around the house and sometimes complain and i step in and help them and complain with them.
      I know this southern boy is well……a southern boy. But this whole thing is his fault, and his wives and not the kids. She is SIMPLY, wanting her parents to lay down on the floor with her and be her friend. Simply hear, cry with me, feel my pain, my fear, my lonliness…..etc. These parents, I guarentee are isolationists. LIke 99.9% of all other parents. Kids just want someone to help them wipe the counters down so they talk about the day and who made a mean face at them, etc.
      We think our kids are spoiled…….BS!!!!! They are ignored!!!!!! They have ten times the pressure we did and we expect the same results from them.
      Wake Up America!!!!! This girl represents all our children!!!!!!!!!

  • mindfullyhealing

    Another post I’ll read and re-read.

    Anger scares me…other people’s anger, and my own…and I scramble constantly, trying to prevent it, avoid it, redirect it, diffuse it, make it go away. It’s something I struggle with the most, and my hardest parenting moments are when I have angry children, simply because I don’t know what to DO. I want them to be allowed to have healthy anger, but I freeze.

    These words -“Wow, you’re really angry and I am too. I want to hear more about why you’re angry” – were so helpful to me. Thank you for that gift this Saturday morning.

  • snrjones

    I really like how you have framed this discussion of anger and respect. I would suggest a couple more options in addition to the kid (or adult) who “quietly submits or angrily rebels”: seems that “quiet rebellion” and “angry submission” are responses/reactions I’ve observed…maybe even lived!

  • WitheringTulip

    Excellent post!

    I have huge issues with anger though the people around me wouldn’t think so because I rarely show any signs of anger.

    Personally, i’m terrified of anger – both mine and others – because of past experience. Beliefs that it has hurt me repeatedly in the past, so indiscriminating belief that it will hurt me again (which is possible but not actually as definite as it seems, depending on who, what, where etc). Also stemming from this are beliefs that my anger will then hurt others. Not ever seeing the expression of anger appropriately modelled growing up means I lack trust in my own expression of anger. Always having suppressed my anger because of this means I don’t know the boundaries and perimeters of my anger and that terrifies me – what is my anger capable of causing?

    But it does always find a way out, indirectly or in unrelated ways. Usually even extremely destructive ways out if it has tried to be suppressed.

    Like you said.. anger is natural and has purpose. It shouldn’t be thought of as “bad” or “evil” because it has a positive role to play too and is as important as any other emotion.

    I think a lot of people think that eradicating anger is the solution, but it’s not (let alone not possible). I think the solution is being able to be okay with anger and being able to express it appropriately and healthily.

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  • ckhbaker5

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!
    I wish there were a therapist like you in my area in San Jose, CA that I could meet with on a regular basis. I guess you’re posts will have to do and I will need to read and re-read them. We have truly lost the art of working with each other and communicating and being honest with each other. At least the technology world has connected those of us with helpful views that are not so close by. :)

  • 1971kdorsett

    This is a great blog! I love it! – Katherine from Atlanta