How do you deal with a hot-tempered parent?
July 25, 2011 10:40 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on building a healthy relationship with my father despite his temper.

Ever since I can remember, my dad has had a hot temper. He tends to get angry about a lot of things, and has very little patience. During his raging fits, he threatens, yells and belittles. I'm not sure if my anxious personality as an adult is a direct result of that, but I often find that I cannot (or rather, avoid) stand up for myself during an argument with him. My stomach is always in knots, I don't want to look at him while I'm calmly explaining my point, etc. He has never been violent against anyone in the family as far as I can recall, but his maddening rage is enough to silence everyone. I don't know if he realizes he's hurting people around him by his constant screaming over mundane issues, but I do believe his heart is in the right place. Has anyone had experience with a parent, spouse etc. with anger issues? How do you deal with it? And how do you sit down together and talk about something without fear lingering over your head?
posted by raintree to Human Relations (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
"If you want to speak with me then count to ten for once in you life, you're being ridiculous. When you can do that, I'll be here." People need to know, otherwise they don't change.
posted by the noob at 10:56 PM on July 25, 2011

If he plays golf, you should play with him. If he fishes, you should fish with him. If he goes to NASCAR races, you should volunteer to cook out with him, in Turn #1. If he paints, you might take it up, too.

If you want a better relationship with your father, spend the effort to get in the best place for that to happen. It's the effort you expend that will recast the relationship, not the place you get to with him by that effort.
posted by paulsc at 11:13 PM on July 25, 2011

Look. I probably should sit this one out because I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but FWIW...

You mention having an anxious personality? That's probably PTSD. Your dad isn't just difficult, he's verbally and emotionally abusive. It really screws you up to grow up in a household like that. It's likely your dad grew up in a similar situation to the one he has created in his current household. I'm sorry.

Via your upbringing, you are at risk for plugging yourself into similar abusive dynamics outside of your family, such as staying too long in a dysfunctional workplace, romantic relationship, or the like.

I think you are asking the wrong question here. I think you need some distance and healing before you can safely interact with this man, even if he means well.

Others will pop in to recommend books and other resources. I'm simply alerting you to the fact that there are red flags in your question that you are discounting. Your poor dad. He's been this way a long time, and unless he has expressed a desire to change, he'll likely always be as he is.

You need to take care of yourself and get some healing and perspective before you can safely interact with your father (repeated for emphasis. see? I'm a broken record on issues like this!)

Reframe your thinking on this first, then dealing with him will become much much easier.
posted by jbenben at 11:30 PM on July 25, 2011 [25 favorites]

I have a similarly angry parent but worse. What's worked for me is very clear boundaries. If they get angry or yell, you end the conversation or the visit and tell them when they calm down, feel free to call you. He only acts like that because so far he's been allowed to get away with it. Once he realizes that he's talking to an empty room and you won't put up with it, the behavior will change.
posted by Jubey at 11:35 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Has anyone had experience with a parent, spouse etc. with anger issues? How do you deal with it?

Yes, my mom. I was terrified of her for my entire childhood. The only thing that helped deal with her anger issues, unfortunately, was to grow large enough (physically) that I could handle the consequences, and then begin to rage back in her face until she was the one who couldn't handle it. I've also read so many stories about verbally or physically abused children who grow to the same size as their abuser, fight back *once,* and the abuser goes "oh shit" and never dares it again.

Now, I don't think that's a particularly healthy or happy way to deal with this. But I don't think asking how to deal with your dad even though he's abusive (you didn't call it that and may not consider it that but I do) is the right way to solve this. I think the only way to solve this is to stop accepting your dad's awful *and completely deliberate and controllable* behavior.

And how do you sit down together and talk about something without fear lingering over your head?

Having stood up to my mom's rage enough times at this point I don't quake at the possibility anymore, BUT because of growing up in that situation, I have general anxiety that's popped up now and then over my whole life. I think that if I were still being raged at by her constantly, it would be a lot worse.

I don't know if he realizes he's hurting people around him by his constant screaming over mundane issues

I don't know him, but I believe that generally people who behave that way know exactly what they are doing, and they do it because it gets them what they want. After all, as you said, his rage "silences everyone." Wouldn't we all love to have a button we could just push to silence whoever we want at times?

You might find it worthwhile to read the book "Why Does He Do That?" by Lundy Bancroft, it explains this in a way that I found extremely eye-opening even though I wasn't thinking about a man when I read it.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:47 PM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have an angry dad. He's calmed down a lot since I was a teenager, but for most of my childhood, it sounds like he was just like yours: he's never violent, but he yells and rages, and if he's in the wrong mood just about anything can set him off.

How I dealt with it was, one day, I started shouting back. And the next time he lost his temper with me, I did it again, and again. After that he clued in to the fact that I wasn't going to just take it, and it didn't happen so often.

I don't know if this will work for you - it worked for me because I inherited a bit of his temper, and by that point I was pissed off enough that I didn't care if I ended up provoking him into hitting me (not that I really thought he would - that helped - you sound like you're half-afraid your dad really will resort to violence). But stand up to him, if you can. Moving away is even better, but that's not always an option for everyone.

Best of luck to you.

(And yes, the anxious personality is definitely a result of that. Nowadays my dad and I have a pretty good relationship: he's mellowed with age, and I now live far away, so we only see each other a couple of times a year and he's extra nice when we do. But I still have lingering problems dealing with angry people, especially angry men.)
posted by Xany at 12:34 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I treat most angry, dramatic people the same way I usually handle undesirable behavior from my dog: I remove the reward. Walk away. State that you will no longer bother to discuss anything with him while he chooses to behave this way, then leave.

He has learned that his anger works. When you no longer reward it, you give him incentive to learn other methods.
posted by itstheclamsname at 1:12 AM on July 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

His temper is the unhealthiest part of this relationship that you're describing.

Not to sound flip, but your question is like asking, "how can I have a healthy relationship with drugs when someone else keeps tying up my arm and shooting heroin into me?"

The answer is avoid that person until you can be sure they aren't going to scream at you.

I usually recommend Deborah Tannen books to people with questions about communicating with relatives. I can't do that here because this relationship is abusive. Having to walk on eggshells is not normal.

I am the product of a very similar home, and though I haven't seen either of my parents in over a decade (and partly because there was other stuff too) my PTSD hasn't completely resolved. But three years of Dialectical Behavior Therapy gave me so many skills for dealing with all of the people in my life. From job interviews to romance to store clerks. I mostly don't expect that every encounter is going to devolve into me getting screamed at for not being skilled enough/wanting some alone time/having to dig for correct change. For my health and safety, communicating with my parents is just not an option, and I've come to peace with that. Part of DBT is radical acceptance, and it's so rewarding.

So. Your relation with your dad might one day be healthy. But the only side of the transactions that you can actually control is yours. nothing you do guarantees any results from him. But getting help for yourself cam teach you when to extract yourself from situations and how to use repetition or other DBT skills to defend your personal boundaries.
posted by bilabial at 4:41 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I had an angry dad growing up. Turns out he had undiagnosed diabetes and was constantly dealing with sugar crashes. He's so much nicer to be around now that he has it under control. Not saying that's what going on for your dad, but a medical checkup may be in order if he hasn't had one recently.
posted by libraryhead at 5:44 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

During his raging fits, he threatens, yells and belittles...My stomach is always in knots, I don't want to look at him while I'm calmly explaining my point, etc
As someone who cringed when I read this, I wanted to express how sorry I am that you have to go through this. From my perspective, your dad seems to be emotionally and verbally abusive (My dad is the same). This is not normal, not your fault, and you do not deserve this type of treatment.

For me, while my dad was never historically physically violent towards me, the verbal and emotional abuse have had lasting impacts (aniexty, depression, other aliments due to long term stress). It came to a strong head two years ago when my dad attacked me. The only way I dealt with it was to leave home and cut off communication with everyone in my immediate family except for my mom until a few months ago.

It was important for me to realize that in every situation, my dad had a choice to react or not react. And that, more importantly, I could choose to not give up my power to him through reacting. I would suggest that the absolute best thing you can do once your dad is engaged is to not play into his power trip. Get up and leave (as safely as possible), do not engage. It took me 6 months of therapy to realize that reacting to my Dad (yelling, screaming, fighting back) was the best thing to do.

I would suggest that you go find a therapist who can help you through this, even just on the basis issue of how to deal with conflict with your dad in a healthly manner that is safe for you and your family.

In the meantime, the book Toxic Parents and a couple books by Beverly Engel to be immensely helpful in learning to have a better relationship with my dad. I've come to accept that I will never have a close or totally healthy relationship with him until he chooses to accept help, but I've managed to build a functional relationship with him through space, time, and lots of therapy.

Best of luck to you.
posted by snowysoul at 7:52 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Two things strike me about your question.

One, when someone is raging at you, standing up for yourself doesn't mean calmly explaining why you disagree and that you think he should respect your opinion. Rather, when someone is raging at you, standing up for yourself means refusing to engage--leaving the room, ending the conversation, hanging up the phone, deleting the email, ending the visit, etc. If you're in a conversation with someone who does not have an anger problem, and there's a misunderstanding, then calmly explaining yourself can be effective. But what you describe is different. Screaming, belittling, and threatening are behavior choices that should be met with non-engagement. You will never find the right words, because there are no right words to convince someone who resorts to screaming threats over mundane disagreements.

Two, given that you grew up with this behavior and have been socialized to accept it, I think it's going to be very, very hard to stop engaging.

I suggest that for a while, you limit contact with him to a medium that gives you the best opportunity to practice. My first thought would be email or letters. You write him a note, express your love, share what you want to share, and give him the opportunity to respond. If he responds in an inappropriate way, such as belittling you or your interests, you can delete the email or throw away the letter. If he follows up--"Did you get my email?"--you can choose whether you want to pretend it got lost in a spam filter or say something more direct, like, "Your email was very angry. I decided to wait to speak with you until you were calm."

Another option would be to have phone calls but keep a friend or your partner in the room with you. Have a signal arranged so that you can quickly alert your friend that the conversation is heading south. Use that person's support to summon the strength to say, "Dad, you're screaming at me. I'm going to hang up now," or whatever you want to say to assert, calmly, that you won't sit and listen while he screams at you.

This is all premised on the assumption that you don't live with your dad. If you do live with him, then I think your first priority should be getting out of his house. You can't rebuild this relationship without distance and boundaries.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:22 AM on July 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

Seriously. Why bother? I have an angry dad myself. Would you really tolerate a friend that threw temper tantrums at you? Even though my mom tries to pretend that we can have a normal family, my dad alienates my brother's and my connection to him. We don't care for him anymore. You'll be happier to just stay away from him and if he's actually cares for you, he'll attempt to phone you.

My dad has temper issues that prevents him from holding a job or friends. Two of my friend's mothers are toxic to their children. There are unsocial people in the world, and they sometimes have children when they shouldn't. Don't feel obligated to be near him because of some family obligation to your parents.
posted by DetriusXii at 8:31 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Everyone telling you to stand up for yourself by yelling back is well meaning, but wrong.

It might be satisfying in the moment, but it will either lead you down the same angry road as your dad (the adrenalin rush from explosive anger is highly addictive) or earn you physical retaliation - or both.

Non-engagement is the way to go here.
posted by jbenben at 8:42 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

My father is like this, and my mother has always made excuses for him like you're doing: he has a good heart, etc. Frankly, "a good heart" doesn't count for shit when you verbally abuse your family. I lost all my sympathy for him when I realized that he controlled his "uncontrollable" temper perfectly well when he was around other people he wasn't related to. He's now in a nursing home and when he gets nasty, I tell him I'm going to leave if he can't be polite to me; if he continues, I leave.

Don't argue, don't get drawn in, just leave if he yells. This is his way of controlling you and feeling powerful; don't even engage with it. You would never allow anyone else to talk to you this way, so don't allow your father to do it, either.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:05 AM on July 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

I agree that you shouldn't necessarily stand up to him on his own ground - yelling back, letting your own anger get the best of you - but it does often help to display your own strength in an argument.

My father is a lot like this. He's mellowed, now, probably because his house isn't dominated by three teenage daughters anymore! He has always smoked a lot of marijuana, so his reactions could be unpredictable depending on whether he'd smoked recently (at least, this is what I grew to infer after other real-life experience with the drug).

What I've learned as I've had adult conversations with him is that, because we all, my mother most of all, tend to clam up, get overwhelmed, walk on eggshells, or even just leave the conversation, when he gets angry, he believes we don't care at all about his opinion.

I'm not saying this is the case with your dad, but he doesn't quite get how forceful he can be. He is an imposing man, and when enraged is frightening, though he's never physically hurt any of us. He roars like a bear. But he has anger management problems and is depressed and doesn't get that his anger is scarier than ours and is inappropriate when directed at children and adolescents.

So, anyway, we grew up afraid, and began to realize that he wasn't exactly logical, wasn't always right, didn't always listen to us, could probably improve his reactions a little, so we started to talk back. And I can't say I always did an admirable job of this, but nowadays I think I'm pretty good at calmly inserting myself into his tirades, and saying, you know what, Dad, I agree with you, but... (etc.) Or even walking away, but FIRST letting him know why - and trying to convey that I understand his reaction, or at least want to.

I think talking to him like a child (IE, I'll talk to you when you can calm down) would only piss him off more. In fact, I've seen it happen. The important thing is if you've done a bad job, or haven't manage to communicate, to address the situation again when you're both calmer - even if you're afraid he'll explode again.

I agree that it can help to try to spend time with him in his own world - for my dad this is smoking pot in the basement and watching Discovery or History channel, so I don't do it. I make the effort to connect our experiences - discuss a book we've both read, or ask him for help with a school project (in the past), or listen to the music he's started making. Sometimes he doesn't reciprocate, and it hurts. I try to tell him.

But if you absolutely can't handle him, there's no shame in giving the relationship space, or seeing a therapist on your own for advice and techniques!

Good luck (& sorry for long answer)!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 9:11 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should add that my dad usually just gets indirectly angry and storms off. I can count on one hand the number of times he's actually said something abusive, or hurtful beyond the usual "the whole world doesn't revolve around you." ("Stuck up little bitch" is the one that comes back to me at my worst moments - I didn't speak to him for two months!)

So, if personal attacks are a regular thing for your dad, someone needs to say to him that his language is abusive and he needs help.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 9:14 AM on July 26, 2011

I swear you just described my boyfriend. He is the exact same way. When he starts yelling (and he has a LOUD voice) I just want to disappear. He doesn't care who hears either and there is NO calming him down. When he talks to his own kids on the phone - if they disagree with him about anything - he gets enraged. I know it's a control thing but just knowing that doesn't make it any easier. I wish I had some words of wisdom for you. Unfortunately, from my own experience, it is impossible to talk to these people unless you let them lead the conversation and you agree with everything they say.
posted by twinA at 10:14 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if he realizes he's hurting people around him by his constant screaming over mundane issues

Are you an only child, or are there other people who could sit down with you and quietly explain this to him? I'm thinking that it would mean a lot more to him if it wasn't just one of his kids telling him his temper's a problem. Especially if any of his friends or peers weighed in.
posted by misha at 10:46 AM on July 26, 2011

I grew up with a dad I was terrified of and it affected all my relationships, especially with anyone in any kind of authority. As soon as anyone around me got remotely upset I'd freeze because I had no reassurance that it wouldn't escalate into over-the-top rage. This makes relationships hard because people WILL get upset in life. They don't all flip out when they do, but I couldn't tell my lizard brain that this time would be different.

Anyway, Dad's stopped yelling. He's also old and physically weak; basically he's not the same person in any way. However, what's helped me deal with other people who are ragers (or even people who just get mad) is therapy/EMDR. It didn't take all that long even- you're not signing up for a year of therapy, though you might get enough out of it to keep going. EMDR unhooked my automatic fight-or-flight (or freeze/run on autopilot, in my case) reaction and now I'm a lot more detached from people's reactions and generally feel physically safer around them.

But: One, when someone is raging at you, standing up for yourself doesn't mean calmly explaining why you disagree and that you think he should respect your opinion. Rather, when someone is raging at you, standing up for yourself means refusing to engage--leaving the room, ending the conversation, hanging up the phone, deleting the email, ending the visit, etc. is absolutely the truth. I still don't hang out with people when they're behaving badly. These days I just walk away and don't feel bad about it at all.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:22 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm really, really uncomfortable with anyone diagnosing PTSD from one paragraph, over the internet. Especially someone who is not, to the best of my knowledge, a clinician.

Since everyone here is so keen on therapy, therapy, therapy anyway, let's leave the diagnosis to a therapist. Please don't erase this comment, I think it's important for the OP to know that she's not just been diagnosed with PTSD.
posted by namesarehard at 6:28 PM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thank you everyone for taking your time to reply to this thread! I cannot appreciate it enough; all your advice has been very, very helpful.
posted by raintree at 5:27 PM on August 1, 2011

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