Living with someone who has anger issues can be stressful and unpleasant. Those who do often find themselves tiptoeing from room to room, holding their breath as they walk through the door, even fearing for their safety. Indeed, so common are anger issues in our fast-paced, overcrowded world, that many therapists and counsellors now specialize in “anger management.”
First, you must understand why this person is behaving in such a way. Not only will you then be better placed to calm them down, it may also help you tolerate their outbursts.
Of course, people struggle with anger issues for all sorts of reasons. In some cases, it may even be genetic. You have probably met someone who grew up in a calm and loving home, whose life has been reasonably happy and successful, and yet who seethes with barely concealed rage.
One common cause is over-attentive parenting. So, for example, an only child whose parents and grandparents spoilt him and told him he was “special” and “clever” may be shocked to discover that the rest of the world does not share their opinion. Instead of the adoration and success he expects, he finds himself in a dull, exhausting job, earning an average wage, not the president of the United States or the first man on Mars! He is thus in a perpetual rage at the world for not giving him what he feels he deserves. This sort of anger is very common and is little more than an unending childish tantrum.
There are, of course, less pathetic reasons. Children who feel unloved and unwanted may fly into rages, literally rolling on the floor and biting the carpet. And such pain can linger well into adulthood. People who were once insecure or abandoned children never lose the fear of it happening again and, as any therapist will tell you, fear quickly turns into anger.
Bullying is another common cause. People who were severely bullied, either at home or at school (or both) vow never to let it happen again and spend the rest of their lives tense and ready. When they yell at you or the children, this may in fact be the pent-up anger they never used when being hit by their father or brothers.
Anger can also be a learnt behavior. Someone who grows up watching her mother scream at her father while she throws the dinner against the kitchen wall is, like any child, going to assume such behavior is normal. Even those who know something is wrong cannot help but copy such patterns of behavior. Survivors may even have a form of post-traumatic stress, which in itself often causes anger. And do not assume PTSD happens only to soldiers or firefighters. Someone who nurses their father through terminal lung cancer may be traumatized, as may the survivor of a car crash or sexual assault. Irrational and unpredictable anger is a classic symptom of post-traumatic stress.
Knowledge Is Power
Begin by trying to uncover the source of their anger. Talk to family and friends, especially people who knew them when they were young, or who knew them before the assault or the accident. Were they always this way, or do these anger issues date from some specific incident? Obviously, you have to be wary here. No one likes to feel that others are going behind their back and asking personal questions about them, especially not about something like sexual assault or their violent father. So be very careful how you approach this.
Still, cliché though it may be, knowledge is power. Once you understand why they fly into these rages, you can take action. Would they benefit from therapy? Would they read a book on anger management? If things are really getting you down, be honest and, if necessary, give them an ultimatum. Tell them you love them and care for them but that you are not prepared to live in terror or be reduced to a nervous wreck. You will stand by them, but only if they are prepared to do something about it.
Finally, it is worth adding that the same principles apply to a teenager. You wouldn’t be the first parent to see her little girl replaced by a screaming banshee! Most people put teenage tantrums down to hormones and dismiss them, but be careful: there may be other reasons. That sort of rage can often be a mask for something that is frightening or confusing your child. Maybe she has met an older man online, or maybe a boy at school is pressuring her for sex. Your teenage son may be being bullied, or maybe he has become addicted, got into debt, or is struggling with mental health issues.
First, and most obviously, you could just walk away. When people fly into a rage, they look for something to feed that rage. This is why angry people often say the most appalling, hurtful things, even to those they love – they want to provoke a reaction, thus fueling their anger until it burns itself out. Indeed, furious people can become still more furious when others will not engage.
By removing yourself from their presence you are taking away a means of stoking that anger. At all costs, do not scream back. That would be like throwing gasoline onto a fire. Just get out of the house or apartment and go for a walk. Use up the adrenalin their anger has provoked by swimming in the sea or practising yoga on the beach. But do not walk out in a dismissive or contemptuous manner, as if they are a silly baby unworthy of your attention. Instead, say calmly and clearly that you can’t bear it when they act like this and that you are leaving.
When left alone, such people often have a moment of clarity, seeing themselves as they really are. After all, few things make people feel quite so absurd as standing in their apartment, surrounded by the shards of glass that they’ve just smashed, fuming but alone. When someone else is there in tears, or yelling back at them, it lends weight to their fury and makes it seem important and significant.
Absurdity and Shame
The more absurd you can make an angry person feel, the more deflated they will be. You must be careful, however. Someone with anger issues is still an individual. They have their own reasons for being this way, and they have their own personality. One person may react with shame or laughter, another may feel humiliated and turn violent. Only you know this person.
If you feel it may help, try recording their behavior on your phone. It would be best to do so when the tantrum is over something petty and absurd, like dirty dishes in the sink or a cancelled flight. Later, when they are in a good mood, play the video back to them. Hopefully, they will respond with a shameful “oh my god, is that what I really look like!?” The next time they lose it, that image should reappear in their mind and make them feel childish and absurd all over again.
You could even try shaming them. When dealing with any sort of confrontation, the first rule is to make it about you and not them. In other words, if someone is being unpleasant, your instinct is to retaliate by attacking them personally, accusing them, perhaps justly, of being rude, selfish, and so on. Instead, you must calmly focus on the effect they are having on you: on how frightened, sad, insecure, or lonely their rages make you feel. And when you do, it is important to be dignified and assertive. Just as aggression must be avoided, so too should fear. The more frightened, intimidated, or tearful you become, the more likely you are to irritate them. So stand there is dignified silence, chin up and shoulders back, and, in a measured, firm tone say “you know, when you behave like this it is a knife to my heart.”
If they are furious that they’ve been passed over for promotion, for example, try reminding them how lucky they really are. You needn’t make this too obvious. You could just mention that someone at work knows a young mother with terminal breast cancer, or that you just saw a documentary about a tsunami or famine and that you cannot get those heartbroken faces out of your mind. Then again, you could be more direct and say “I was driving home today with our son. Imagine if a truck coming in the opposite direction had lost control and smashed into us. Such things happen all the time. Just be grateful the people you love are safe and still love you.”
Defusing the Situation
Finally, you could try to defuse the situation through silly behavior. Again, be careful. Only you know the extent to which this person can take a joke. But if you do not fear actual physical harm, do something silly. There is a wonderful moment in the TV show The Osbournes, in which the teenage daughter is yelling at her father, who responds by pulling a funny expression and saying “I love you.” Against her wishes, she starts to smile.
How you do this is up to you, but there are many possibilities. You could, for example, play some silly music, like the Benny Hill theme tune or a song from Monty Python. Indeed, you could put on a comedy show, or, as in the example from the Osbournes, prepare something absurd, funny, or sweet to say. Get your timing right and you may see all their energy re-directed into laughter. If your child is throwing a temper tantrum, walk into the room wearing a red clown’s nose or silly wig (it’s very hard to yell at someone wearing a bright red squeaky nose!).
Living with someone who throws these sorts of rages can grind you down. We have not evolved to cope with such behavior in a confined space day after day – our nervous systems can’t take it. So if the techniques described above do not work, seek professional help. No one has the right to make you feel this way.