Most parents know that getting angry with their child is not productive. It often does not lead to the outcome desired, and the cost to the relationship is so high that it’s not worth the price.
Some wonder what the effects are and if they are really as bad as people seem to think.
How does a parent’s anger affect their child? Parents anger affects a child negatively because the child is going to respond emotionally to what they are receiving from their parent. It’s natural for any human to respond emotionally when a strong emotion is being projected at them. It’s more understandable in children because their brains aren’t developed to generate a rational response.
There’s a lot to what’s going on in the child’s mind. Some of it is driven by genetics and is known as the natural part of their development. The rest, however, is how they are nurtured. From an early age, they learn everything they know about the world from their parents.
The relationships they have in their adult life will be shaped by these early years. Parents who understand this established science will be more likely to take it seriously, and better positioned to be a healthy example in service of their child’s needs, ensuring their positive social-emotional development.
Types of Anger
It’s important to frame the conversation around the types of anger a child can be exposed to in the home to develop a clearer understanding of the behavior to which they are exposed. There are three types of anger (source):
- Hasty and sudden anger: Occurs when the person experiencing the anger feels trapped or afflicted. Occurs in episodes
- Settled and deliberate anger: A response to deliberate harm or unfair treatment directed toward the individual that is either real or perceived. Occurs in episodes
- Dispositional anger: More like a learned behavior, habit, or character trait than something that happens in episodes. Manifested through irritability, sullenness, and churlishness
Anger can be expressed overtly or covertly, meaning it can be out in the open or it can be shielded by other behaviors to look like something other than anger. Further, a child can be exposed to direct or indirect anger in the home. Direct anger is directed at the child. Indirect anger is directed at someone else in the home, but the child still feels the effects of the negative emotions being expressed.
Effect of Angry Parent’s on Children
Children who suffer from abuse are at-risk for poor physical and mental health outcomes. Their personal, financial, and professional lives as adults will also be impacted if they experience this in their home growing up. The progression towards these negative outcomes is gradual, with associated behaviors manifesting themselves through each stage of life.
For example, children who suffer from abuse in the home are more likely to exhibit at-risk behaviors in school, decreasing their chances of academic success. Those who do not experience academic success will have this risk factor compound with the others to further decrease their chances of success in life. It should be noted that high levels of exposure to anger constitute an abusive environment.
Further, these same children have a more difficult time interpreting their emotions than children from homes where anger was not highly present (source). They also struggle more with self-control, problem-solving skills, perceptual learning, emotion socialization, attachment, and trauma.
The bottom line for this study was this: caregivers of abused children experience and express higher levels of anger, which roll down to the child’s experience. It’s important to note that the standard for abuse in this study was defined as substantiated reports with child protective services or a score on a commonly used assessment that indicated abuse.
The child who lives with anger lives under constant fear. Their bodies realize they are in a threatening environment and respond accordingly. As a result, they adapt to this state of constant fear and develop differently than children who are cared for by people who manage their anger well.
Children learn primarily through observation. When you think of the parent as the child’s primary teacher, you realize that the behavior they are modeling becomes the template for how the child will behave as well. When they frequently observe abusive behavior from a primary caretaker that behavior becomes their behavior over time. In turn, these children also have mature with a reduced ability to regulate their emotions.
Examples of Anger That May Have A Negative Impact on the Child
As anger is exhibited in the family home its expression can develop into a habit. When habits form, they can be hard to break for many reasons, one of which is that parents may not realize that they are doing it so frequently.
By thinking deliberately about your actions in your home, you can start to consider whether some of your behaviors are creating an environment for your child that is not as healthy as you would like it to be. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you keep adult conversations between you and your spouse private?
Talking about adult matters in front of kids is one of the most common ways that parents exhibit anger in front of them. You may think you are just talking or having a debate, but they don’t see it that way. Humans don’t fully understand how to use logic until age 25, which is when that part of the brain fully develops (source).
This means that your child will be relying on the part of the brain that processes emotion to understand what they are witnessing. Remember, through their observations you are teaching them how to behave. It’s better to keep the adult conversations private.
- Does your behavior communicate love for and support of your spouse?
Learned behavior is absorbed over time when the actions we think are “small things” add up to reshape the dynamic of a relationship. Children learn how to behave based on what they see in the home. So, if they have two parents who don’t talk to each other pleasantly, are short with each other, or are otherwise disagreeable, then they will learn how to treat other people in that manner.
However, if they grow up in a home where the parents model compassion, kindness, and teamwork then they will be far more likely to develop those traits as well. (source)
- Do you stop to think about how you are behaving?
It can be difficult to consider how our actions are impacting those around us when things are moving so fast and there is so much going on. We all have moments where we check in with ourselves and recognize that there are some things we would like to do differently. We don’t always get around to making those changes.
This is unfortunate, especially when it comes to how we are modeling behavior for our kids. While life is moving at us at a mile a minute, they are learning how to act day by day. What seems fast for us happens slowly over time for them, and they learn behaviors from their parents that their parents probably don’t want them to learn.
For parents who would like to get a better understanding of the degree to which they are expressing anger in their home, there are tools available that can help assess the degree to which anger is present (source). Although you may need to see a psychologist to have them administer a tool like this, it could be well worth your time.
If you are willing to become more aware of your own behavior, you have already made a huge step towards changing it. Once you do this, you can begin to explore the reasons for the anger and work to change your behavior (source).
How Your Child Will Pick Up Your Anger
The behaviors a child exhibits will vary greatly depending on their disposition, what they see, and how they interpret it, among other factors. Here are a few ways that children are known to pick up on anger demonstrated by parents:
- Anger is expressed directly to the child
Kids don’t learn what you want them to learn when anger is expressed directly towards them. They tend to internalize the emotion and respond, commonly by shutting down or acting out. In the process of this experience, they will also learn how to treat others in the same manner.
If a child does something wrong, it’s the parent’s job to help them learn how they can do better next time. This should be done calmly and empathetically through both words and actions.
- Anger is expressed indirectly towards the child
Children don’t need to be yelled at or put down to experience hostility and anger. These negative emotions can manifest themselves in many ways. An angry parent may tell a child to go play in their room and stay there or to sit down on the couch and watch TV and be quiet. At face value, it may not appear that anything is wrong with either of these two directives, but there are. They promote disconnectedness. A child will not learn to be peaceful and content in a home that is not connected.
- One parent expresses anger toward the other parent
Remember, children think emotionally. They are not listening to your words, they are processing how your words, tone, and mannerisms make them feel. Then they are extending that feeling to the other parent because they know that it must make them feel bad too.
At the moment this may generate a feeling of empathy in the child for the parent who is being yelled at, but in the long run, it is teaching the child how to treat their loved ones.
- One parent demonstrates frustration with the other
Even if parents are not overtly fighting with each other, children can sense when something isn’t right. Further, most human communication happens non-verbally anyway. The child constructs their understanding of what is going on in the home through what they observe and what they feel.
They internalize these experiences piece by piece over time, making connections to construct meaning. If they see parents who are short with each other, demanding, and seeking to be right instead of being connected, they will learn that this is the way they are supposed to treat others.
How Parents Can Control Their Anger
When harmony exists between the parents the children in the home feel it, sense it, and learn from it. The best way to develop consistency with the children in the home is to first develop it within the marriage (source). Anger is commonly linked to harsh discipline, which is almost never necessary.
Anger is usually related to parental stress, and the irritations that parents feel are soon felt by the child as well. Today, it is easier than ever to deal with issues like this because there is so much information online. Parents can go to traditional counseling (which they should do if they are concerned about their situation), seek counseling online, read reputable content, and watch videos from reputable sources (source).
How Parents Can Begin to Calm a Stressed Child
Parents who have expressed more anger around their child than they would have preferred still have a chance to turn it around. Every day is a new day, and every moment is an opportunity. There are things parents can do to recalibrate their family experience. Here are a few suggestions:
- Get an understanding of why the child is acting the way they are
For example, if the child has developed a new fear of the dark, their new sensitivity could be a response to how they are being treated in the home. Use this as a signal and spend more time trying to connect with them. During some of this time, let them talk about their fear. Then reassure them. By giving them a greater sense of security, you will help them learn to face their fear knowing they will have you by their side.
- Take the time to make sure they see deliberate acts of kindness
The good thing about learned behavior is, that with hard work and dedication, it can be modified and relearned. Of course, this is not the preferred path, but it beats the alternative. If a parent makes the effort, even through small gestures in the beginning, they will be laying the building blocks for change.
Let your child see you hugging your spouse. Spend more time at the dinner table. Make connections that will change behaviors and lead to a stronger bond.
- Develop family rituals that promote closeness
Habits have a huge impact on character. By developing rituals that the whole family can participate in, you will be modifying the character of the family. Do things together that bring joy. Do things together that are good for the mind, body, and spirit. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Go bike riding together a few times a week. Go to the beach together. We like to bring sandwiches and go around dinner time. While you are together, make sure you are doing the little things to show that you care and want to be around each other. The kids pick up on this more than many other things.
How Parents Can Raise Their Child to Be Connected
There are many implications of raising healthy children. We know that the environment in which children are raised will be the most significant contributor to how they see and interact with the world. There are different ways to approach the creation of that environment, but one thing is clear. It must be built on a culture of connection.
Families who are connected are far more likely to be kind and empathetic towards each other, creating a standard that promotes emotional intelligence which becomes bred into the children. This can be challenging to do given the challenges parents face in the 21st century, but they can be overcome by families who are intentional about how they interact with each other.
There have been many schools of thought on family culture and child-rearing dating all the way back to before Jean Piaget. Many of these teachings are now considered wrong, but they laid the path towards progress that we enjoy today.
As we now have a deeper understanding of both child and adult psychology, we can use that knowledge to improve the experience in our own homes. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, here are seven things that parents can do to raise caring and empathetic kids:
- Work To Develop Caring, Loving Relationships With Your Kids
- Be A Strong Moral Role Model And Mentor
- Make Caring For Others A Priority And Set High Ethical Expectations
- Provide Opportunities For Children To Practice Caring And Gratitude
- Expand Your Child’s Circle Of Concern
- Promote Your Child’s Ability To Be Ethical Thinkers And Positive Change-Makers In Their Community
- Help Your Child Develop Self-Control And Manage Feelings Effectively
Each of the items on this list contributes to the healthy development of the child in a different way. However, this list is not exhaustive. There are many other ways that you can reach your child.
For the parent with the desire to improve the lived experience of the child in their home, another thing they could look to improve is the dynamics of their marriage. Parents who demonstrate stability, conscientiousness, and agreeableness are more likely to create a home that the child will describe as happy (source).
When parents make the decision to consciously reflect on the experience their child is having in their home they have already taken the first step towards making that experience better. By committing to finding the strategies and tools that will work well for their family, they are putting everyone involved on a path that can lead to success.
Remember, the days are long but the years are short. Each stage of development presents unique challenges and opportunities. Parents who are in tune with how their child is developing will be more likely to respond in a productive manner. For more information on the qualities a child needs in a parent, check out the article I wrote on the topic.