Why anger is (almost) as important as love in the relationship between parents and children

A new book looks at the inner worlds of children through the eyes of a psychotherapist.

Anger: The demon in each one of us. We despise it, apparently. Yet we are drawn to its power.

Aggression is a necessary part of living. It is “the innate urge of the child to use force in order to control, to dominate, to overcome, to master, to influence something in the outside world. Aggressiveness is necessary in order for man to establish contact with an external object, to maintain this contact and to control objects in his environment.” The roots of our aggression are the roots of our life force. The pleasure we experience in movement, even if it hurts at times, the rage we experience at frustration, have the same roots.

The demon of anger is in us all. It is us. It makes us; it makes us different, it makes us stand out, stand up and move ahead. For it is the same energy that powers a tantrum or a rage that also powers our capacity to assert ourselves, have an opinion, to be heard, to place a boundary or go beyond one. Our aggression is what helps us differentiate self from other.

This demon is constantly repelled in order to prove our piety, goodness and uni-dimensional nature, usually the feeling of love. But it is a precarious state, often a front, or a false self, like the little girl who keeps a smile on her face even when she is nervous.

Yet, like the inevitable age-old relationship between the devas and the asuras in Hindu creation myths, this demon is near. Always near. And like the asuras who are honest about their quest for amrit, anger is honest. About want, greed, desire, about being self-serving, perhaps to the point of destruction of what we also hold as good and valuable. Acknowledged openly.

Repelled but present, whether as envy, greed or jealousy, whether unconscious, repressed or displaced, controlled or sublimated, this demon is always present. And when we deny its existence, we miss the point it is trying to make and perhaps miss out on an important part of the truth; our truth.

  • We are never in 100% attunement with our loved ones.
  • An absence of conflict is not what we need.
  • What we need is repeated experiences that misalignments will be repaired, that conflicts will be resolved, that love will be greater than anger. That is what builds a stronger relationship, not the avoidance of conflict.”

My five-year-old daughter, when really annoyed with me would say “Mumma, you are such a zebra!”

One time, when I was urging/forcing/cajoling her to take some medicine (for her own good) she frowned, screwed up her eyes, curled her little hand into a fist and air-punched me, one inch away from my face. I was taken aback but returned the air-punch to her fist and it turned into a game. She had rebelled, got her point across, no one got hurt, there was no retaliation and I did manage to get the medicine in as well.

As a six-year-old, my daughter could verbalise “Sometimes I think you are a monster”; she said it with some trepidation, lest the monster-mumma emerged at that moment. A year later she would wonder out loud “DO you still love me? Then why do you shout at me?” And she could ask “How can it be that you still love me when you are shouting at me?”

At other times it did not go so well. She would walk into our bedroom in the middle of the night plagued by “bad thoughts” or nightmares in which she was being attacked or I was being killed. I found myself trying various things as panacea – “it’s nothing, go back to sleep” or “it’s only a dream, it’s not real, go back to sleep” or just “it is the middle of the night, GO BACK TO SLEEP!”

Eventually I decided I may try some of my psychoanalytically informed theories, that in fact her “bad thoughts” were fuelled by her unacknowledged anger that she was projecting outward. In other words, “she was angry with me, in real life and instead of being able to talk about that, she was covering it up but the cover was flimsy and was not working; that it would just be simpler if she would be mad at me when she was mad at me”, or words to that effect.

It worked.

By the time she was eight years old I began to get written notes telling me off for some omission or oversight, telling me I had lost points and was now scraping the bottom of the barrel and needed to pull up my socks if I wanted my status to improve. She could say “I hate you right now” and more complex ideas such as “I love you but I don’t like you”.

The “bad thoughts” stopped. By nine, I was “the best mumma in the world”.

Let’s see how long this lasts before rage returns.

“We do much more violence to babies and young people by neglecting their emotional realities and moving them further away from an honest relationship with their internal worlds. Living with a theory of ‘bacche to aise hi pal jaate hain’, we abandon children and let emotional poverty and hunger continue, and it returns to us all. One of the jobs of a parent is to be a kind of emotion coach, and certainly to help children regulate their emotional states. Children cannot do this for themselves.”

I love you. I hate you.

Cinderella and Snow White solved this problem by splitting their hatred and anger, into the step-mother they were persecuted by. That way the love for their adored but dead mother could be preserved. And this is true, that is how it happens, a love that is preserved is in fact dead because it is unreal. Our real selves are far more complex and that complexity is painful but it is not uni-dimensional. Because we are dynamic, and we have our opposites right there next to us, like our shadows, which can only be seen by us depending on how the light falls.

All of our emotions are painful when experienced intensely but none so painful as anger toward someone we love. For it is only those whom we love and depend on who cause us frustration and pain. Because “Anger is the loudest of all the emotions”; it can effectively work to cover many of the other feelings that may live alongside it – sadness, disappointment, guilt or the search for parental love.

Anger can be used as a defence to hide our other feelings behind, or it can be honest. Either way it predisposes us to violence, in action and inaction, in words, in fantasy, both conscious and unconscious, and also through neglect and abandonment. We neglect our own feelings and those of our children when we judge and condemn angry outbursts; we fail to let them experience their angry parts and eventually deprive them of a nuanced, unbiased view of their inner lives. This is an uncomfortable, daily, ordinary occurrence in every family, between every parent-child pair.

Excerpted with permission from Love and Rage: The Inner Worlds of Children, Nupur D Paiva, Yoda Press.

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