How Anger Can Become Addictive

The Four Payoffs for Anger that Keep Your Family Stuck!

Yelling. Screaming. Hurtful words. Sometimes even aggression. How did we get here?!
Not what you envisioned when you decided to have kids!

Many of the parents we coach are desperate to change the frequency and intensity of anger in their home, but they just don’t know how. We haven’t met a parent or child yet who says, “I just love getting angry. It makes me feel great.” Of course not. It’s stressful, discouraging, wreaks havoc in relationships… So WHY do people keep exploding?

Four “payoffs” that make anger really addictive!

Anger researcher Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D. identifies four addictive “payoffs,” (benefits), that build habitual, angry reactions.

1. Anger protects us from disclosing vulnerable emotions.  

When kids (and adults) experience tangled and confusing emotions that are difficult to express, what often comes out is anger. It feels vulnerable to be anxious, ashamed, sad, embarrassed, disappointed, discouraged, overwhelmed, confused, hurt or rejected. A typical response is to self-protect by avoiding or hiding those emotions under a layer of anger.

So when your child loses a card game and angrily screams at his little sister, “You cheated! I’m not playing with you again!” you might angrily fire back, “She is NOT cheating! Why in the world do you keep saying that? Go to your room!”

What your son might be feeling is “I’m discouraged and ashamed that I keep losing to my little sister. I’m dumb!”  What you might be feeling is “I’m confused about why he loses control so easily, and I’m anxious that I don’t know what to do!” But unless these underlying feelings are understood and expressed, the surface anger rules the day and  this cycle will continue with increased intensity the next game (or any time there is conflict).

2. Anger soothes us by numbing pain.

One of the brain chemicals secreted during anger works as an analgesic (like Tylenol) to block pain. It’s a great chemical if you’re physically threatened, because pain slows you down if you need to slug, kick, or run for your life.

But if the threat is purely emotional the chemicals simply numb the pain of deeper and more complex feelings. It might look something like this:

Josie: “Your drawing is stupid. I can’t even tell what it is.”

Ian: “What do you know?! All you do is build stupid Lego planes all day!”

In this simple interaction, Ian’s anger has numbed his probable pain of hurt, rejection and sadness, while also invalidating any merit to Josie’s opinion. Two problems avoided with one burst of analgesic.    

3. Anger empowers us with a sense of control.

Seltzer states, “I’m convinced that anger is employed universally to bolster a diminished sense of personal power. Contrary to feeling weak or out of control, the experience of anger can foster a sense of invulnerability—even invincibility… In a sense, it’s every bit as much a drug as alcohol or cocaine.”

We see this in children all the time. If a child who is totally engrossed in play is told to clean up right now and head immediately to the car, she probably feels powerless in the face of the dominating adult. “NO!! I’m NOT done!” An angry response nicely diminishes her feeling of powerlessness.

4. Anger regulates intimacy.

In a backwards sort of way, angry engagements provide a sort of intimacy kids may not get otherwise. As parents and kids feel increasingly disconnected (due to increasing angry encounters), they may both seek intense eye contact and verbal engagement even if it is through angry interactions. This may be the closest thing a child can get to the eye contact and attention desperately needed.

If your child watches a sibling get affection and affirmation from you, with no hope of getting such positive attention, it probably won’t be long before your struggling child does something negative to get your undivided attention!  

With these four payoffs in mind, it’s easy to see why anger can spiral out of control and how parents’ good intentions to make it stop can sometimes backfire. Confrontation and consequences are probably not what’s needed. These responses discourage kids and they grow resentful. They then seek more angry power, and start to build their identity around being a “bad” kid. Struggling kids have a deep need to be encouraged and empowered with “anger-busting skills.” We want to equip you with the practical help you need!

Our NEW in-depth FREE eBook, “Helping Kids With Anger” is written to encourage and equip parents with insight and creative approaches to guide your children wisely. It includes ideas to proactively build skills, help you think-on-your-feet in crisis, and free you from residual discouragement and shame.

It would bring us great joy to help your family out of anger cycles and into a place of grace, peace, and connection. Request your free ebook here:

Struggling with an angry child?

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