How can I navigate an angry family?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anger is a normal emotion that we all experience occasionally, and it can be a healthy one when expressed in a constructive way. Excessive, frequent, or repressed anger, however, can be an unhealthy presence. Problematic anger can arise out of varied sources—one of which is an individual’s family. People who grow up in an environment in which anger is expressed in unhealthy ways may experience similar difficulty controlling their emotions, challenges which can continue to affect them in adulthood. If your family members experience problematic anger, there are several strategies for both interacting with them in healthy ways and coping with your own feelings. Below, we’re going to discuss the effects of anger in the family, outline ways you can navigate this dynamic, and provide strategies for managing and expressing anger in your own life.

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Anger is a normal, healthy emotion

The effects of anger in families

Research indicates that socialization—and parental socialization, in particular—plays a significant role in an individual’s emotional development. As the source of the first and primary social relationships for many people, family dynamics are thought to impact an individual’s ability to understand and express their emotions. An individual’s capacity for emotional control, therefore, can be greatly affected by the emotional control skills of their family members.  

Emotional control may be described as the ability to monitor, evaluate, and modify reactions according to the situation. This skill is vital to an individual’s capacity for anger management. Anger is a powerful emotion that can be difficult to control at times. The three main approaches people use to manage anger are expression, suppression, or calming. Expressing one's anger in a constructive way is considered the healthiest approach. This involves directly addressing needs that aren't being met without exhibiting aggressive or hurtful behavior. 

Living or growing up with family members who struggle to express anger constructively can present many challenges.

Research shows that anger and aggression in parents can lead to similar behaviors in children and teenagers. Early experiences with anger can also have long-term effects on an individual’s well-being, with studies pointing to parental anger as a common cause of mental health challenges like depression and anxiety.

However, there are steps you can take to both control your own emotions and interact more constructively with the anger of others. 

How to cope with anger in the family

If your family engages in frequent angry or aggressive behavior around you, it can be challenging to know how to respond. The following are suggestions for coping with anger in your family:

  • Actively and patiently listen to what the person is saying without reacting
  • Acknowledge their frustrations
  • Try to maintain eye contact, if possible
  • Give them and yourself space to calm down (e.g., going to another room, taking a walk, or resuming the conversation at another time)
  • Set boundaries for yourself by outlining behavior that you will not tolerate, and think of ways you can reinforce these boundaries if they are crossed
  • Identify their triggers and find ways to avoid them

While these can be helpful approaches in the short term, problematic anger may need to be addressed in a more comprehensive manner to ensure your relationship with certain family members is as healthy as possible. If you’d like help navigating anger in your family, consider attending family or individual therapy. 

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How to manage anger

As discussed above, being exposed to the anger of others can lead to difficulty controlling it in ourselves. If this is the case in your life, there are several proven methods of managing your emotions and finding healthy outlets for your anger. Consider implementing the following strategies to reduce the effects of anger in your life.

Practice mindfulness

Research suggests that trait mindfulness may have a mediating effect on anger. In a study of 155 individuals, trait mindfulness—which is described as “acting with awareness, nonjudging, and nonreactivity”—was found to reduce anger in interactions between a parent and child, as well as among couples. 

While trait mindfulness is considered an inherent quality, such a state can be cultivated by those who find it more challenging to be mindful. A person can learn to be more present and aware of themselves and their experiences. In additional to helping mediate anger, mindfulness has been found to help individuals cope with stress, depression, and physical health challenges

To start practicing mindfulness, find a quiet place to sit or lie down. While taking deep breaths, bring your awareness to the present moment, paying attention to your feelings, thoughts, and environment. Are you happy, tired, bored, energetic, angry? Acknowledge these feelings without judgment. Pay attention to your environment and take note of the sensations it produces. What does it smell, feel, or look like? If you find that your thoughts start to wander, bring them back to the present. Fostering an increased sense of presence can help you not only relax but also identify and address anger when it arises.  

Remove yourself from the situation

Sometimes, the most effective way of alleviating tension and avoiding anger is to limit your exposure to the potentially anger-inducing stimulus. If you find that a certain situation is leading to problematic anger, consider whether there are ways to remove yourself from it. For example, if you frequently experience anger while sitting in traffic, finding a less crowded route or avoiding peak congestion times can lead to a calmer, more enjoyable commute. 

Identify the primary emotion

Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion, which means it usually follows a different primary emotion. We may only become angry after first experiencing stress, sadness, embarrassment, jealousy, etc. If you become angry without knowing why, take stock of your emotions from the time you began to feel signs of anger. For example, you might frequently find yourself angry at home following a long day of work, which may indicate that your feelings stem from career-related stress. In this case, reducing your stress may help you better manage the anger that follows it.  

Practice relaxation exercises

Studies show that deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and other calming practices can reduce anger and aggression. Many relaxation exercises can be done both while you’re experiencing anger and as a form of prophylactic stress management. A common deep breathing exercise is box breathing. To practice box breathing, inhale for a four count, then hold your breath for a four count, before exhaling for a four count, and then holding again for a four count. Repeat this process three to four times. 

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles in the body. To start, tense the muscles in your foot for 5-10 seconds, and then relax them for about 30 seconds. Then, continue this process with each muscle group in your body. Other relaxation exercises include yoga, tai chi, meditation, and music therapy. 

Avoid dwelling on the past

Letting go of negative feelings toward a specific situation can help you avoid unhealthy expressions of anger, especially if it has already been resolved with the person. One way to do this is by using a technique known as cognitive restructuring to reframe the way you think about a person or situation. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of an interaction or scenario, you may try to recognize the positive or neutral aspects.

Take, for example, a situation in which you your brothers showed up late to an important event. While recognizing that you’re upset about their tardiness, you might choose to focus on how appreciative you are that they made it safely. Letting go of things that are in the past can help you develop a positive mindset, limit the negative effects of anger, and move forward in a healthy way. 

Understand your triggers

Knowing what situations or interactions commonly lead to frustration, aggression, or stress in your life can help you avoid anger before it develops. One way of recognizing your triggers is by keeping a journal of moments in which you became angry. This can help you identify patterns over time. For example, you may realize that a common trigger is related to contentious conversations with your parents about your life choices. To avoid this, you could set boundaries around what you and your parents discuss when you talk about your life.   

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Anger is a normal, healthy emotion

Navigating anger with online therapy

Research suggests that online therapy can help individuals reduce problematic anger. For example, in one recent trial, researchers found that online therapy decreased anger expression, rumination, and aggression in participants. The two modalities utilized in the study were mindfulness and cognitive reappraisal—techniques that we touched on above. 

If you’d like help managing anger, navigating complex family dynamics, or addressing similar challenges, consider connecting with a licensed therapist online. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a mental health professional remotely, allowing you to avoid potentially anger-inducing situations like commuting to an office. Your therapist can also help you avail of useful resources, such as at-home exercises geared toward helping you develop anger management strategies on your own time. 

Takeaway

Growing up in an environment in which anger is not managed in a healthy way can lead to serious challenges in an individual’s life, including trouble controlling their emotions and continuing tension with family members. If you’re experiencing anger in your family, utilizing the above coping strategies can help you navigate anger in both your relationships and your everyday life. If you’d like further support as you work to limit anger’s effects, consider working with a licensed therapist online. Getting matched with a mental health professional can be a productive next step toward managing your anger and cultivating emotional wellness.

Learn to separate anger from behavior

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