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anger and family conflict

How to Work with Anger That May Arise During Family Conflict

Anger is a very energetic emotion. It is the only emotion that moves us to action. Many teenagers are known for angry outbursts as a way to assert themselves into situations and gain autonomy from their parents. By studying the neurobiology of anger, we know that anger is typically is a secondary emotion, even if it is usually more visible than the underlying emotions. This explains why focusing on anger as a “problem behavior” during family therapy isn’t always effective in learning to manage anger.  In one of our recent “Mindful Moments” episodes, we discuss ways to understand and embrace negative emotions, like anger, in order to heal relationships. 

Why is Anger a Common Response to Family Conflict? 

The same area of our brain that is stimulated when experiencing happiness, the left side of the prefrontal cortex, becomes active when experiencing anger. This suggests our brain likes the feeling of anger just as much as it likes the feeling of happiness. It feels good to the brain to feel agitated and upset. So many of us are driven by the biology of immediate gratification that we’re not necessarily going to be thinking through the consequences of acting on our anger. 

One of the driving forces of anger is wanting to be right. We’ll find people that agree with us to prove our point. Being angry and resentful at someone else creates a social connection with others who share this anger and resentment. These intense emotions offer a break from all the thinking, analyzing, and planning ahead that we do by helping us to stay in the moment, but it can do so at the expense of ignoring how negative emotions affect connection and communication in relationships. 

How Does Anger Play a Role in Reinforcing Family Conflict?

Through our work with families, we try to help teens and their parents identify what roles they play in family conflict. Many of the teens we work with begin to identify with the anger that they feel, either by internalizing conflict and isolating themselves or externalizing anger and acting out. Regardless of the role they play in family conflict, much of the family’s attention is diverted to the way that anger is expressed by the child, which distracts from the core of their anger. 

In cycles of family conflict, arguments and boundary pushing are reinforced by the reward loop of anger. Teens are rewarded for their anger against their parents by connecting with a third-party, who they can try to get on “their side”–whether this is another parent, a friend, or even a professional. The more they discuss conflict in their relationships with others with people that aren’t directly involved, the more helpless they may feel, as ultimately, the only people that can address interpersonal conflict are the ones that are involved in the conflict.

How Can Mindfulness Help Reduce the Intensity of Anger?

Mindfulness can interrupt the buzz that we get from anger and outrage by creating a gap between the fight or flight response and the action. Taking time to pause and reflect helps teens identify that their ego is driving their desire to “be right” or “have the last word.” Many mindfulness practices are focused on how to improve taking other people’s perspectives and to learn how to sit with emotions before responding. 

Mindfulness is one of the core skills of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is one of many evidence-based therapies used by therapists at Red Mountain Colorado. One useful DBT skill that is used to diffuse anger is known as “Willing Hands,” which is a way of accepting reality with your body by practicing “Opposite Action.” This skill is symbolic when used in family therapy as it represents the first step in holding hands with others.

This posture of openness involves unclenching hands, turning palms up, relaxing fingers, and resting palms on one’s lap. This technique helps to regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which mobilizes during anger by physically preparing to fight through the clenching and tightening of muscles. By practicing this skill, the brain is better able to remain logical and take in information, particularly during heated conversations with others. This encourages teens to listen more closely to what others are saying without jumping to conclusions or their own defense and realize that feedback is not coming from a place of anger, but rather that it may stem from underlying emotions like sadness or fear. 

Through our mindfulness-based family therapy approach, teens and their families learn to understand their family dynamics, identify what roles they play in the family system, and better define their relationship. Mindfulness practices help relieve tension and intense emotions experienced in the body in order to more clearly address and work through negative thoughts and inner conflict.

Red Mountain Colorado Can Help 

Red Mountain Colorado is a residential treatment center for young people ages 14-17. The program focuses on influencing a positive change in the lives of students. Healthy, sustainable activities are also incorporated so that students will be able to apply the things they learn to their everyday lives. Teens with trauma leave Red Mountain Colorado feeling empowered and in control of their lives.

For more information, call (877) 302-5022. We can help your family today!