Coping With Anger

Nov 26, 2014

with Miriam Levi (author of Raising Children to Care and participant in “Raising Our Children to Have Good Midot”: a Darche Noam Yarchei Kallah panel discussion on Tuesday, August 8, 2000)

A. The Harm In Anger
Anger Is Wrong
Chazal denounce anger as a destructive character trait. When we get angry we shout, scream, insult, causing the other person anguish, which is forbidden–as is written in torah, “You shall not hurt your felow man.” This includes pain caused with words.

How does anger hurt others? Anger sends a message: “Something is the matter with you,” or, “You’re not so O.K,” or, “You’re a bad child.” This message comes across both through what we say and the way we say it. Take, for instance, the request, “Please don’t interrupt me.” When stated quietly and pleasantly, it has no bad effect. But say that in a raised voice–can you picture the effect on the child?

According to Rambam, we have to do teshuva for anger and other bad character traits as well.

Anger Gets Us Poor Results
When a child misbehaves or acts wrongly, what do we want of him? That he be aware of his misbehavior or wrong action, regret it and want to behave better in the future. Anger in no way accomplishes this. Let’s see why.

A five-year-old boy regularly teases his younger sister, making her cry. His mother has asked him many times to stop, but he doesn’t listen. Finally she loses patience and tells him angrily, “What’s the matter with you? Why are you so mean to your little sister? Why can’t you treat her nicely?” The five-year-old is now even less motivated to change the way he treats his sister. If he accepts his mother’s negative evaluation, he’ll become preoccupied with thinking about how bad he is. If he rejects it, he’ll attempt to defend himself. Moreover, mother’s attack is likely to make him feel resentful and rebellious toward her, hardly the best mood for compliance.

In fact, our anger often reinforces the very behavior we wish to eliminate. In the child’s eyes, our anger implies that he is bad. He then accepts this evaluation for himself, concluding, “This is the way I am. I guess I’ll always act this way.” So he continues in his negative behavior pattern.

Anger can, of course, frighten children into obeying, but this is accomplished at great cost to our relationship with them. Moreover, the results we obtain are temporary at best. In all likelihood, we will find ourselves resorting to anger continually to make our children comply. Eventually we will reach a point where we are forced admit, “The only time they listen is when I get angry.”

Anger Spoils Our Joy
Judaism stresses the importance of joy. The Torah teaches, “You shall rejoice in your festival, and you shall be [vehayita] only joyful.” On this Rav S.R. Hirsch comments that the word vehayita comes to teach us that we must extend through the whole year the joy we achieved during the festival.

In the Kuzari, Rav Yehudah Halevi writes that joy is, together with reverence and love of God, one of the three pillars of service of God. Reb Nachman of Breslav used to say: “It is a great mitzvah to be constantly in a state of joy.”

Unfortunately, the irritation and upset feelings that come with anger spoil our joy.

B. How Anger Develops
(Analysis restricted to parental anger)

1. Our child isn’t behaving as we want, or he’s making our life difficult in some way. For example: He/she:

  • Won’t listen
  • Nags
  • Refuses to help with household chores
  • Makes a big mess
  • Hits the baby
  • Won’t go to bed

2. We are intolerant of this reality, meaning we are unwilling to bear or endure that our child isn’t behaving as we want, or the hardship he causes us.

Typical thoughts:

  • “It’s awful and terrible!”
  • “I can’t stand it!”
  • “It shouldn’t be this way”
  • “It’s too much!”
  • “I shouldn’t have this!”
  • “I can’t take anymore!”
  • “This shouldn’t have happened!”

3. We negatively judge our child, blaming and condemning him for causing us hardship.

Typical thoughts:

  • “Why can’t he…?!”
  • “She shouldn’t be this way!”
  • “What’s the matter with him!””She’s so mean (inconsiderate, selfish, irresponsible, lazy, etc.)!”
  • “He’s impossible!”

4. We are angry.

C. Working Down Anger
Level One:
Realize that your evaluations are highly exaggerated and extreme. “It’s awful and terrible!” Is this true? Compared to a car accident or a serious illness, is it appropriate to say that your child not listening or refusing to help, is “awful and terrible?” Learn to use more objective and appropriate language, such as “This is not a good thing.”

“I can’t stand it!” The implication here is that we’re unable to stand it. Yet the fact that you’re remaining in the situation is clear proof that you are able to stand it. A more accurate statement would be “I’m unwilling to stand (bear) it!” With this formulation we’re admitting that it’s a decision on our part – in other words, we have a choice in the matter and can decide to see things differently.

“It shouldn’t be this way!” What we’re really saying here is “What is should not be!” Picture someone at the window on a rainy day, angrily declaring, “It shouldn’t be raining – the sun must come out!” When we find ourselves angrily thinking, “Things shouldn’t be this way!” – is what we’re doing any different?

Try to look at things in the following way: This is the situation Hashem put me into, or I put myself into. What is required of me now? What are my Torah obligations at this point?

Level Two:
1. Give up being intolerant of the difficulties and hardship your children cause you, and learn to “take it.”

2. Refrain from negative judgment and remind yourself of the Torah obligation to judge favorably, or look for extenuating circumstances.

For example:

  • “He hasn’t learned self-control.”
  • “She has bad habits.”
  • “He was strongly tempted.”

Level Three:
1. Focus not on what you want, or how this is affecting you, but rather on your child’s welfare: “It’s not good for my child that he’s acting this way.”

2. Decide on the best way to deal with the situation.

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