Parents: Are you angry at adult children?
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Anger can be a powerful motivator, so knee-jerk responses to suppress it don’t always make sense. I understand the reason behind this rush to negatively judge the emotion or get it under control. Explosive, aggressive expressions of anger can damage relationships. A quick temper can cloud judgment, too, so impulsive behavior or rash decision-making can follow.
But not everyone who is angry about their adult child’s cruelty or abandonment is in danger of erupting like a volcano. Frequently, anger is an activating emotion that moves these parents from paralyzing sadness and shock toward self-preservation. When relationships with neglectful or bullying adult children have become one-sided, manipulative, or abusive, shifting to focus on one’s own well-being is often the only sensible choice.
In my life coaching work, parents sometimes come to me because they’re angry. They may be feeling uncomfortable about their emotions and stuck in anger—and it’s hurting them. Frequently, there are longer roots or associations that complicate their feelings. Their anger may be scary, but it may also be justified and even “normal” given the circumstances.
Anger: A useful emotion
Despite the discomfort of feeling angry at adult children, the fear we might have toward our anger, and a history of being told to tamp it down, anger is an important emotion. Feeling anger helps us to recognize danger, spot injustice, and work toward solutions. Some of the biggest advances in history may have started with anger.
However, I usually encounter anger when it has become a problem. My clients aren’t typically lashing out in fits of rage or acts of violence, but they may yell and curse in the shower, then feel shaky or guilty later. Maybe they kicked the chair and suffered the consequences of a painful bruise. Or, they snapped at their loyal dog … and then felt horrible seeing those gentle, sad eyes in response.
Sometimes, feeling angry at adult children makes parents uncomfortable in their own skin. The anger some parents feel seems incongruent with who they profess to be—a therapist, a dentist, a clergy member—so they start to feel like a fake, a hypocrite, an imposter. Those feelings then bring all sorts of negative self-judgments and insecurities. Their inner voice begins to hound them:
- How can I lead others spiritually when I’m so angry?
- What if I’m distracted when I’m with my patients? They deserve my full presence.
- How can I help my clients when I can’t seem to help myself?
- How can I smile and give good customer service when I’m pissed off?
Parents struggling with anger may find themselves triggered in social situations. Lunch with a friend who mentions grandchildren results in simmering rage. How can she be so insensitive?
One mother of two estranged adult children who is no longer allowed to enjoy her grandchildren says feeling sad was easier. “I could get a Kleenex and say my allergies were acting up,” she says. “What can I do with my anger? I can’t yell at my friend. It’s harder to hide when I’m mad.”
The rational side of this mom recognizes that her friend is just living her life. She’s not thinking about this mom’s pain and frustration. Feeling angry then is a secondary shock, and she judges herself for it. The truth is, after a lifetime of being told to control her temper and be nice, this mother’s anger is scary to her. But just as outward displays of aggression can wreak havoc on relationships, repressing it and judging ourselves harshly for it can make us physically sick.
The research (many, many studies) is clear that habitual anger—expressed aggressively or suppressed—has dangerous health consequences including.1
- Diminished immune function
- Increased stomach acid
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Decreased bone density
- Increased blood clotting
These physical changes can push chronically angry persons toward a variety of health risks, including more susceptibility to viruses, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, stroke, and so on. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but any Internet search will find connections between habitual anger that’s suppressed or allowed to explode and increased risk of ill health, as well as thoroughly explain the cascading effects.
Obviously, our thoughts about our anger and the desire to keep it in check make this emotion complicated. Losing control, dismissing, or repressing it isn’t beneficial. By asking questions, we can uncover any roots beyond just feeling angry at adult children, better understand discomfort with the feeling itself, recognize how anger may have been useful previously, and activate the reasoning brain to work with it.
Should parents get mad?
As our children were growing up, we did well to keep their developmental ages in mind. Getting mad didn’t make sense with an immature toddler throwing a tantrum. We might have taken a time-out of our own, sucked in some calming breaths, and then addressed whatever problem may have arisen. We learned to push our anger aside, moderate our responses, remain kind, and work toward solutions. Parents of difficult, abusive, or estranged adult children usually follow this habit. But there comes a time when maintaining these parental behaviors no longer makes sense.
Parents of unkind, neglectful, or abusive adult children have the right to feel angry. Yes, read that again: You have the right to feel angry. These are adults … and they have treated you badly. That doesn’t mean you’ll mirror their rants or abuse. That wouldn’t be wise or helpful. But your anger is telling you something:
- You’re being wronged.
- You’re receiving undeserved disrespect.
- You’re (possibly) in danger.
Anger is a useful cue.
Just because we gave birth to or raised these now fully grown adults doesn’t mean they get the privilege of hurting us. I’ve talked repeatedly about how most of us try to build better relationships and continue to reach out to them when that’s healthy. But there comes a point when anger shifts our perspective—and the anger is justified. As long as we’re not getting lost in that emotion and indulging in hurtful or irresponsible behavior, we don’t have to see ourselves as bad or wrong for feeling it.
If anyone else treated us so badly, we wouldn’t be expected to negatively judge our responses, swallow our anger, and repeatedly put ourselves in the line of fire. Our anger might be called “righteous indignation.” The wrongs would be recognized for what they are, and we’d be applauded for voicing injustice, and walking away with some self-respect.
If you want to read more about what some believe motivates society and authority figures (so called “experts”) who tell parents to do this, get my book, Beyond Done With The Crying. Here, we’ll shift and widen to the concept of “weaponized civility.” It’s the idea that shame is heaped upon marginalized populations for the justified anger they feel. Usually, the term is used in connection with attitudes toward people of color and, occasionally, women. But it can apply to groups of any sort who have been oppressed or wronged.
I recently heard a podcast in which a researcher gave the people of Flint, Michigan as an example. They were angered over lead in the drinking water which, according to many reports, was covered up by the government and allowed to continue hurting area children. When those people protested, officials lectured them about civil discourse. I understand the fear of officials hoping to avoid violence. Civil discourse is needed. At the same time, I empathize with the citizens. Their anger is justified.
As mentioned in Beyond Done With The Crying, parents of estranged adults children can be considered a marginalized population. Many of us are careful who we tell about our situation. We fear the negative judgment that we’re the reason for the rift. And we are judged. Despite the fact that estrangement is much more exposed these days, there is often an underlying belief that adult children don’t reject good parents. That belief hurts. So, it’s easy to hide the facts and become isolated. And then if we’re angry, we’re judged again.
Angry at adult children: Is your anger hurting you?
Has your anger gotten out of control? Do you have rageful periods where you break things? Rant and rave? Do you feel a simmering resentment that you keep in check much of the time but disturbs your sleep or affects your digestive system? Do you find that you’re often angry when driving? Do you ruminate over angry behavior and wish you’d have kept quiet or walked away? Has your angry behavior ever got you into trouble with the law? When was the last time you punched the wall? Hit someone? Yelled? Do you feel guilty for your anger, even though you don’t express it?
Consider whether your feelings of anger are helpful to you, a motivating level up from the paralysis of sadness, say. Or whether your anger is getting the better of you somehow. Earlier, I mentioned someone kicking the chair and suffering the physical consequences. Most of us have experienced an angry moment where we did something useless like this. Or perhaps we slammed down our telephone—and then were thankful the screen didn’t break. For most people, these sorts of outbursts are a rarity. We learn from them and don’t indulge again. We find creative outlets to release our anger through physical activity like gardening, building, or exercise. Others may see they have a bigger problem and would be wise to seek help.
In Beyond Done With The Crying, a few parents shared their experiences with anger and the roots that complicated their feelings and responses. These people successfully changed their relationship with anger. You can too.
Do you feel angry at your adult children? I’m not inviting you to rant and rave here, but perhaps you have something helpful to share with another parent. Here’s your chance to leave a comment. Do consider your words and write responsibly.