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.
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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.