Holiday time can be fun and exciting. For many people, it’s one of the few occasions for friends and family to gather, share a nice meal and reconnect. Some families have a lot in common. They have plenty of fond memories to recall and new stories to tell. For other families, time spent together can mean anxiety, anger and a struggle to get through the day without someone losing their cool. There is no shame in feeling this way. Relationships are meant to be challenging. If they were all easy, life would be pretty boring. The good news is there are ways to improve a relationship if you really want to. It’s not enough to want the other person to change. The hard part is making a decision to change your own role in the relationship and sticking with those changes. Harriet G. Lerner, Ph.D. is the author of an insightful book on this subject called “The Dance of Anger" (A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships). This book has many examples of troubled relationships and clear, logical ways to effectively deal with them.
A good indicator that change is in order is to recognize recurring patterns that cause you to feel angry. Anger in and of itself is not a bad thing; it serves an important purpose just like any other emotion. Anger gets a bad rap because many people don’t know what to do with it. It’s not a pleasant emotion so some people try to avoid anger by pushing it down. Sometimes, they withdraw and ignore the anger until they feel depressed and frustrated and often don’t even understand why they feel the way they do. Other times, they explode, rant and rave about everything and nothing. As a result, they are not taken seriously. Anger management is an important skill that is not effectively taught in our society. Children pick up cues from adults so when adults don’t know how to cope with anger, we can hardly expect children to learn how to deal with it.
Let’s look at anger from a child’s perspective. Imagine a three year old child who was so excited because she had a quarter and she was finally at the front of the line of a giant gumball machine. The gumball spins around a circular ramp several times before coming to a stop in the child’s hand. She couldn’t wait to get to the machine and turn the crank. She used all the strength she could muster and turned it twice but she needed to give it one more little turn to get the ball in motion. Just as she was about to turn it, her mother grabbed the crank and gave it the final turn. The girl was crushed. She cried loudly as she threw down a lollipop that was in her other hand and it shattered to bits. The mother scolded her for causing such a scene. The mother then looked for support from bystanders because she has to tolerate this seemingly erratic and bratty behavior. The child was furious that her thunder was stolen with the gumball machine, she lost her lollipop, and to top it off, she is being scolded and humiliated in public. Perhaps the mother thought the child couldn’t turn the crank any more and she was just trying to help. The next thing she knew, her daughter was having a meltdown. Who is at fault in this scenario? Both people felt justified in reacting the way they did. In many cases, anger and arguments stem from a series of events that start out innocently and soon get blown out of proportion. It becomes a cycle which means there is no beginning or end. People get stuck when they become too vested in determining who started it, who is right, and who should apologize, when in fact, it doesn’t really matter. The only way to get past the conflict is for one party to step up and take responsibility for their role in the cycle.
When young children get mad, they may yell, cry, throw things or even hit others. Our advice to these children is to use their words. We say, “Calm down and tell me what you want.” This same advice applies to adults. The best way to get past the anger is to calm down, get clear about where the anger is coming from and decide how to do things differently. Next, it takes courage to verbally express one's true feelings. It’s never too late to build a better relationship with friends and family. There is nothing more rewarding than mending a damaged relationship or building close personal ties. Nothing is better for kids then being surrounded by emotionally healthy, honest and loving adults.
The practitioners at the Resiliency Center sincerely hope that you are enjoying the holiday season with friends and family. If you need help to improve family relationships there are several practitioners that are here to support you, including me, Delia Nessim.