A Therapist Explains Why We’re All So Ticked Off in Social Media

Parenting fail alert.

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday night, my thirteen-year-old son Aidan forgot to finish his chores. I’d relocated some plants in the yard, and I’d asked him to water them. He didn’t. I immediately decided his work ethic was lacking—probably because of YouTube—so I told him he was grounded from his phone.

He got angry.

I sent him to his room.

Because when my kids are sad I want to hold them, and when my kids are scared I want to encourage them, but when my kids are angry I want to punish them. I don’t want to listen to it; I want to squash it.

When they get angry, I get angry right back.


Photo Credit: Irena Geo (Bigstock)

This is natural: our brains are wired to experience anger as a threat, so we reflexively return the threat. And then some. Not to mention, we tend to think of sorrow and fear as relatively harmless emotions—if they do damage, it is only to the person feeling them—but we tend to think of anger as an unhealthy emotion. Bad. Destructive. Most of us have been wounded by someone’s anger, and we want to put an end to the wounding.

So we send anger to its room.

And yet.

Something about Aidan’s anger was unsettling. There was something about how defeated he looked while making a stand, something about the way his eyes shimmered while the rest of him raged. Something told me this had nothing to do with his phone and everything to do with his heart.

It nagged at me for a day before I realized what it was.

Slowly, I recalled the entire weekend: Aidan had gladly weed-whacked the yard on Friday night, lovingly cared for his sister on Saturday morning while I coached soccer, happily helped me with yard work on Saturday afternoon, joyously sang in the church choir on Sunday morning, and willingly helped me with yard work again on Sunday afternoon. And still, it wasn’t good enough for me.

Aidan had every right to be angry.

It turns out, sometimes, anger is a totally appropriate emotion.

When someone mistreats us, anger demands to be treated better. When someone tells us we are something we’re not—like being called a slacker after a weekend of hard work—anger insists on being seen accurately. When someone shames us, anger stakes a claim to our worthiness.

So, what if the problem with our anger isn’t its existence; what if the problem with our anger is that childhood is our best opportunity to become wise about wielding it, yet most of us were just sent to our rooms instead? What if anger isn’t inherently harmful, but telling our kids they have no right to be angry is?

And what if social media is the natural conclusion to doing so?

If we grow up believing it is never okay to express our anger in the home, we are left with only one place to express it: outside of the home.

That used to be a little more difficult to do—you had to go to a bar and get in fight, lose your cool at the office, or rage at someone on the road. Now, all you have to do is sit down at your computer. All you have to do is find a comments section to troll, find someone in your feed who voted for Trump/Clinton, or find a mom you disagree with about Vitamin D. Now, all you have to do is sit down with your tablet, log-in to any skirmish in the culture wars, and dive in with your digital bayonet.

Maybe we’re all ticked off in social media in very destructive ways because we never learned how to be ticked off at home in constructive ways.

Maybe we rage in public because, instead of being sent to our rooms, we needed to be given room to be angry. Maybe home is meant to be the space where we sit together with our anger, discern what it is trying to say, and learn how to say it in a way that invites connection rather than retaliation.

Maybe, for instance, the kids at Berkeley are out of control, in part, because college is the first place they’ve been allowed to get angry, and no one has ever taken the time to show them how to do it right.

Twenty-four hours after sending Aidan to his room, I sent him a text:

“It must feel like you can’t ever do enough. I’m sorry.”

He never texted me back. But when I got home, he greeted me at the door with a smile and a hug. Next time, I want to make more room for his anger, and I want to make it more quickly. Because inside of that space, we’ll find a way to be hurt and gentle, rather than hurt and harsh. We’ll discover that his anger has a soft underbelly—we’ll find out that he’s trying desperately to hold on to his sense of worthiness.

Inside of that space, I think we’ll find more hugs and forgiveness.

I think we all will.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

To find out more about how our anger can return us to our truest, worthiest self, order Loveable now. It is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, 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.

30 thoughts on “A Therapist Explains Why We’re All So Ticked Off in Social Media

  1. I’ve experienced this as a parent. It’s so easy to react with anger and so much harder to practice patience in the face of it. But with practice, comes improvement. And with patience comes the space to let anger do what it needs to do. Reading your post today has validated my feelings and my experience. As always, your blog is a place to which I turn when I need encouragement. Thank you.

    • Nancy, thank you, and thank you for the way you describe this. I like the idea of it being a practice which you improve at over time. That makes it feel doable, rather than just one more thing to get frustrated about!

  2. Yet life is unfair. And maybe one thing he learned there by accident is that when authority demands too much it should apologize. I’m no expert and I have no evidence but that’s what I think may be one unintended consequence. Yet I agree with your conclusion overall; makes sense. There are no more schoolyard fights, kids don’t have recess anyway to attain normal social skills, and helicopter parents are too often building an alternate reality. So sure they troll online. Do you think that has anything to do with the online behavior of the former Harvard admits?

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Sam. It’s good for kids to learn that there parents aren’t perfect and that authority will respond to your voice. You mention the Harvard students. As soon as I saw that yesterday, I texted Aidan, told him I was proud of how he is learning to interact maturely with real people in the real world, and told him it will give him a leg up on getting into the Ivy League!

    • A few general thoughts, and surely others will weigh in… the response could be partly dealing with the expression of anger is appropriate, partly understanding where the anger is coming from, what part of that person is being disregarded or what need is being unmet. That doesn’t mean that whatever spurred the anger is out of line, it might mean that everybody needs to get their empathy hat and explore the bigger picture together.

    • I have previously dealt with, and continue to deal with this very specific issue. With anyone (children, spouse, bosses, friends, relatives, anyone you can think of) not raising my voice is the first step. Raising my voice is for alerting others to some danger and if I want to win at being mature, I cannot snap. I cannot be dangerous or raise other peoples hackles with impending danger from my direction. Step 2, I have to actively listen, really, really hard to see and feel what is the core concern coming from the person speaking with anger. Step 3, I have to relate to whoever is speaking and find a way to consider their frustration as justifiable. Step 3 is the worst part. Accepting someone else’s anger is like allowing someone to drag nails across a chalk board. “EEEEEeeeK!”
      Then, after those three steps I am able to put words out that seem reasonable and fair, NOT smart-alecky or snooty. I don’t come off as the bad person and usually there is a return of some kind (usually loud or flippant in nature) from the angry person where they double check I’m not going down the same “dangerous” path with them. After I stand my calm, non-loud, ground they either deflate, walk away, or storm away depending on how tightly they are holding their own anger. NOTE: this behavior from me does not fix the situation immediately. It just stops it from getting worse or continuing in the moment. If/when the other person is inclined to connect with me based on my first three steps, then things will improve.
      I have tested it at work, at home, and in public multiple times and found it to be pretty effective for my own sanity. Unfortunately, I often get a little crazy and short fused and don’t follow those steps and I have to try again later on. My children test me on this method a lot. I don’t pass the test every day or with every child on days when I’ve done right by another. It is a living, breathing, work in progress that I hope to master to some level before my children become adults.

      • Thank you JC. The solution (if there is any) always starts with us (me). I am trying to avoid situation that may trigger an anger reaction in either way. For example, getting up earlier and waking my son a little bit earlier. I guess, it’s an ongoing work.

      • That was going to be my question for Kelly, can you continue this blog with effective ways to handle this?
        I grew up in a home where dad yelled and it was his way or the highway. Do you know how extremely hard it is to retrain your brain?!!
        My very very angry teenage daughter (who is everything my mother wished she would be 😒) is a challenge every day. I often wonder what I did to let her get this out of control. I take full responsibility, because of the way I respond. The second she gets angry, I’m angry.
        JC- thank you for this reminder. (Some days I’m really good at this, most days not.)
        My saving grace is that she does not behave this way in public. She gets all As, her teachers and coaches adore her. I’m that mother at parent teacher conferences that says, “you must be talking about a different child! Not mine!” Lol
        I’ve often thought that if at home is the only place she feels safe enough to show her anger, I can do that. I’m not sure if that is right or not.
        I once read a perfect quote, I hope my daughter’s anger makes her an awesome CEO of a company and not the gang leader in prison!

        • I feel your pain, Shayne. My adult son has anger and control issues. I see it expressed towards his wife and daughter in ways that are not appropriate or constructive. Which breaks my heart, because I am seeing a legacy of pain continue, for my dad was angry a lot when I was young, too. And, he reminds me of my dad when he gets on my granddaughter’s case. That fear and helplessness that I experienced as a child comes rushing back whenever my son expresses his anger towards my granddaughter. Many sleepless nights are spent worrying about my granddaughter’s self worth. I cannot help but feel responsible for transferring this family dynamic because I was living and raising children in the dark. I didn’t have the healthy tools needed to fill my son’s self worth, since I didn’t own any self worth of my own. Now, he gets angry everytime his self worth is threatened. I understand it better now. The veil is beginning to lift. However, I am afraid to talk to him about it. He may shut me down. A defense mechanism he has learned.
          He may call me crazy. I don’t know. But, until I can find the opportunity and the courage to talk with him, I will just try to love him, build up his self worth, and diminish his shame as best I can. I will also teach my granddaughter, that, despite how others may treat her, she is worthy of love. Good luck to you, Shayne. I hope that you find peace with your daughter.

          • We can’t go back in time, which sometimes is a bummer.
            I just wanted to comment on how I know exactly how you feel when you say the fear and helplessness you felt as a child comes rushing back. Isn’t it indescribable how awful that makes us feel? I’ll work up the courage and plan to simply talk to my dad about an issue, and either 1- I chicken out when standing in his presence, or 2- the minute he starts replying (maybe in a stern voice) I fall apart and feel like that timid scared eight year old.
            I don’t know if Kelly would recommend this or not, but over the last few years, I’ve learned I can say how I feel in a letter better. I’ve hand written my dad and sister several letters in order to say what I need to say. My dad and my relationship has improved immensely (esp after he divorced my mom -their relationship was wearing on him). Now, I can say little quick things to him. For example, he’s very judgemental and we might be attending an event for one of my children. He will criticize something (not necessarily r/t my child), embarrassing if someone overheard, but I will say, “you know? You don’t HAVE to be invited to these things.” I’ve noticed the negative comments are decreasing.
            I wish you luck with your son, it sounds like you are doing great for your granddaughter.

  3. Such a lovely read this morning. To be willing to listen to the soft underbelly of anger-whether others or our own-is truly a gift of grace. I recognize tbe more I can do this for myself, the better able I am to be a wholehearted witness to my partner, my children and others whose anger crosses paths with me.
    Yesterday my 23 year old texted me to say she finished reading LOVABLE. She said she passed it on to her boyfriend’s mother. I think that is pretty great praise for the book!

    • Carolyn, thank you for the observation that the best place to practice this is with ourselves, and then we’re better at extending this grace to others. And please tell your daughter thank you for me; I do receive that as high praise! 😊

  4. What a thoughtful examination and example – of how and why we fail, how we might process and make amends. Thank you.

    We live in a society where we are supposed to play nice, which actually means not making others uncomfortable. Instead of getting rightly angry, we are supposed to brush things off, act like it’s no big deal. (I’m leaving out the nuance of effective communication for the sake of clarity here.)

    “When someone mistreats us, anger demands to be treated better. When someone tells us we are something we’re not—like being called a slacker after a weekend of hard work—anger insists on being seen accurately. When someone shames us, anger stakes a claim to our worthiness.”

    And it should. It’s worth learning to honor our anger when it’s coming from the right place.

    Easier said than done, of course. I’ve failed myself in this area a lot of times, still do, still trying to learn to have the courage to be as much as I am.

      • Our pastor did an awesome sermon once on how all anger is not bad and how we should use our anger for positive.
        It makes me want to be a foster parent.
        It makes me more productive on the community boards I serve on.

  5. I am guessing that you sent him to his room without grounding him from his phone or he would not have seen your text…when disciplining our kids, my husband and I have very different parenting styles. The challenge we face is to find a fine balance and appear as a cohesive unit with a consistent message.

    I grew up in a home where I was allowed to vocalise my anger though I can’t remember how often it was addressed constructively.
    The struggle I now face is that my husband just cannot any negative behaviour from his parents. Being their only child, he feels he can’t shouldn’t. It often leaves me feeling deeply resentful as I am sometimes impacted by their unreasonable requests. They say they love me but continue to do things that infuriate me and my husband stays quiet. It makes me think that either they are too thick-skinned or completely lack empathy. Spelling it out to them makes no difference. I feel really, really angry to just grin and bear it. Any thoughts how to manage this recurring scenario better?

  6. I think this is your best post. Open, easy to identify with and to understand, and addressing something very important for us as individuals as well as our society. Personally I have been both people in your situation uncountable times throughout my life. I am glad your son demands your respect, and you (delayed, as I also have been) had respect. One of the joys of grandparenting for me is using my respect for my young people’s emotions to help them grow as graceful people. Your post is grace-growing and life enhancing.

  7. I grew up in a home where my father was angry all the time, my Mother never expressed her anger, and my 9 siblings and I walked on egg shells around my dad. Today, I am angry a lot, and am afraid of confrontations. And, I feel shame whenever I try to express my feelings with my family. I’m in pain often, struggling with depression. I quit drinking a month ago, because I realized that I had been self medicating. I heard you speak on a link that Dale Partridge had shared on fb, and immediately purchased your book Loveable. I am desperate for help. Your book has reminded me why I am here. And, why I matter. I need to hear that more often, especially when my shame is overwhelming and I feel invalidated by those who do not understand. Thank you for your help. I will keep your book by my side to lift me up whenever I feel that the world is against me.

    • This was my life as well! A therapist pointed out that my sister and I have no idea how to disagree because we were never allowed to as children.
      Keep following Kelly. He is amazing. I just started Loveable, but every word so far is hitting home.
      You can do this!
      We are both SO loveable!

      • Thank you for your response and support, Shayne. It means so much to me. This post was a first for me, in sharing a very vulnerable side of myself with strangers. I am learning to put myself in the hands of good, supportive people, rather than those hands who have always dismissed my feelings, creating in me a vicious cycle of anger, shame, and searching for approval from those who do not support me. It was time to make a change. Yes, we are loveable Shayne. Thank you for that. I am so happy that I have stumbled across Dr. Flanagan. I believe he is a Godsend.

        • I LOVE the comfort when two adults (strangers or not) can relate to the feelings we have/had. If you have not had a rough childhood, one just simply does not understand how you have to learn simple things, things that should have been learned at a young age. And a lot of times you have to unlearn something first!
          I yearn for a lot of positive affirmation due to my father. My husband does not understand this, and I try to find it elsewhere. But I also know I can give it to myself. I’m working on that.
          Dr Flanagan is crazy awesome! How does such a young man understand so much about us?!! I love every single one of his blogs. I want him to be my husband, the father to my children, my therapist, my boss, my church pew neighbor, my neighbor neighbor, my….I think you get the picture. Lol

  8. Thank you for sharing this touching personal story about anger and bringing it to our social media connection phenomenon. Admiting you are wrong is probably the hardest thing anyone is able to do, especially for dads who our society tends to put so much pressure on to be strong and never show weakness. This was the best message you could have gifted dads on this Father’s Day. That it is ok to be angry as long as this brings us to open up and talk one another, forgive and start the healing process. Happy Father’s Day! Share this with the dads in your life. I know this message will be the best gift he would have ever received.

  9. I love when my kids disagree and fight with each other. My husband not so much. He tries to squash the combat right away. My thinking is like yours — if we can’t figure out how to argue as kids how to we deal with it as adults? P.S. How did Aidan get your make-up text if you took his phone?? 😉

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