Perhaps there is no interpersonal expression so destructive as anger. Most of us think of anger as a legitimate, if not oftentimes painful, emotion. But it is impossible to make someone angry without tapping in to another, more basic, feeling first.
You cannot make someone else angry without first hurting, frightening or frustrating them. Perhaps if you embarrass, disappoint or sadden them they will get angry but you can’t make them angry without one of these primary emotions being stimulated first. Anger is a defensive response against someone who has gotten too close by provoking a more basic primary feeling.
Many primary emotions make us feel vulnerable. When someone scares us we feel at risk or in danger. When someone hurts us we feel emotionally wounded. When someone frustrates us we feel helpless. When someone embarrasses or humiliates us we feel exposed. Our response to vulnerability is to defend against and distance ourselves from the threat, those who have gotten too close. Anger serves that purpose.
Anger always injects distance between two people. It serves to push others away and as a result decreases vulnerability. So when I’m angry I’m defending myself, therefore I feel stronger and less susceptible. And if I’m less susceptible I’m safer. But I’m also lonelier.
And what about anger in our relationship with our teens? Well, when we are angry with them it is because somehow we feel vulnerable. Of course they “hold the keys to our heart” so when we feel out of control and scared for them, frustrated by them or disappointed in their behavior we protect our heart by getting angry with them.
On the other hand, our teens get angry with us because they have to distance themselves from us. If we continue to have control over them they cannot gain a sense of autonomy. They use anger to fuel their separation from us. They find our attempts to manage their teen behavior to be frustrating and perhaps, in their peer dominated world, humiliating and they push away with anger.
While adolescence is a time of tremendous turmoil for kids and parents alike and anger is likely to be a part of the striving for greater independence we can decrease the likelihood of destructive anger by being more aware and expressive of our primary emotions.
Realize that your teen has to have greater distance from you in order to feel more independent. It’s normal, healthy and inevitable. Express to them your understanding of this dynamic. And tell them of your fear, frustration and disappointment. Expressing these primary emotions won’t make the anger disappear but it will diffuse its intensity.
We move toward others when we admit our primary feelings. We are more open, more vulnerable but also more authentic. That’s far preferable to moving away from them with the expression of anger. And during the “fire-storm” called adolescence admitting vulnerability rather than defending against it helps a lot. Take a chance!