Angry 10 year old has dad with anger-management issues

Our 10-year-old daughter seems to be going through a tough time and I am not sure of how to help. Our daughter has always been seen as a happy-go-lucky kid who is positive, adventurous and social. Things have not always been easy at home with a dad who is loving but inconsistent and has anger management issues. I also get caught up in the stress so it is not like I was always very empathetic either.

In a way it is surprising we have not seen a stronger reaction before! Well, she has certainly been angry before and has yelled at him and me but this is different and she now seems to have a tougher time with the rest of the world which is making it much harder for her.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that our daughter was getting more irritated at little things and did not seem to find joy in the same things. She prefers to withdraw with a book. I also noticed that she was getting irritated at her best friend (who has also been going through some tough times and has been quite angry at the world the past year). In addition, there is another friend at school who really has some issues and has made my daughter's life quite stressful. My daughter is trying to be a good friends with her but this girl can be very mean so my daughter is very torn about it and does not know handle it. So I can certainly see that there are a lot of things going on but I am not sure how to help her.

It is not easy to get my daughter to talk about how she really feels (I see mostly anger) but some things have come through. She says she is not happy and that things are unfair. Everyone is unfair to her, including her dad, sometimes me, her best friend, her "mean" friend, and little things now throw her off all the time. The smallest thing and she has an anger outburst.

My husband (her dad) as I said has some issues of his own and there have been some bad times through the year but for the moment (and I guess the past few weeks) he has been trying to control his issues. But he is losing his patience with her so now he is getting angry again and I am afraid we are going to enter a vicious circle.

So what can I do? I have tried to show a lot of empathy and it works to a certain degree but my daughter cannot get out of the feeling of the world being unfair and I can see that she feels very helpless. I get frustrated and say she has to not let some things get to her, but my daughter feels all situations warrant strong reactions. I also feel bad because while I try to say that we can work though things I think I end up dumping all the responsibility on her. She does also say she feels blamed for everything and I can see that. My husband has always blamed small and big things on her (better now but it is still there) and while I try not to, I end up there when I am trying to show her how to take charge/control of her life.

I am sorry if I was rambling but hope that some of it made sense!
Caterina

Dear Caterina,
I'm so glad that you wrote. I'm impressed with your commitment to your daughter and to doing something to make the situation better, even if it means questioning your own contribution. It is not an easy situation to be with a man with "anger management" issues. (I will assume for the sake of this discussion that her dad does not hit her, or you. If he does, my advice would be to leave, immediately.)

You say that the difficult situation with her father has been going on for awhile -- that he has anger management issues and blames her for things. You mention that while you have tried to be empathetic with her, you have not always managed to pull it off, because -- as would happen with most of us -- you get caught up in the stress. You are a bit surprised that she has been fine until now, and you haven't seen a stronger reaction. But now that you see your daughter reacting badly, and developing anger management issues of her own, you're having a hard time dealing with her, and you wish she wouldn't react so strongly.

I think you are actually very lucky. Your daughter is letting you know how upset she is about her situation. The alternative would be that she might be acting out in ways that would not be as positive as expressing herself to you. This is a good sign, and indicates that she trusts you and wants to stay connected. But you will have to actually address the situation, rather than trying to talk her out of her "strong reactions," if you want to help her.

Girls in their tenth year usually do become more volatile, as hormones begin to kick in. But that just means our responsibility as parents is to practice calmness in the face of their upset, so that they can learn to stay calm themselves. And it does not make her concerns any less valid. You yourself admit that while you say the family can work things through, she is the one who is "gets all the responsibility dumped on her."

Kids also learn whatever coping skills they observe in others. If her dad has anger management issues, she is likely to develop them also. Since kids learn both sides of any relationship they're in, she might also end up in relationships on the receiving end of someone else's anger (as in her relationship with her "mean" friend), that are reminiscent of her relationship with her dad.

Luckily, it is not too late. I suspect that you are the key to this situation, and that your willingness to act now could change your daughter's life path. I strongly encourage you to take this as a wake up call and to find a counselor who is experienced in family therapy. (I know that can be daunting. If you don't have a church counselor, you could ask your daughter's school if they can give you a referral. Also, if you have health coverage, your plan may be able to refer you to someone who is an experienced family therapist.) I am specifically recommending family therapy for a few reasons:

1. This issue is about family dynamics and communication, not about your daughter's adjustment.
2. If you take your daughter to a therapist to help her "take charge" of her life, she will feel there is something wrong with her, and will become more angry.
3. Your daughter cannot actually take charge of her life (as you are hoping) without some assistance from her mother and father.
4. Your husband would greatly benefit from hearing in family therapy how his anger management issues are affecting his wife and child.
5. Even if your husband won't accompany you to therapy, the fact that you are going with your daughter will show her that you are committed to her and to improving your relationship with her.
6. Going to therapy with your daughter will solidify your bond and bring you closer, so that you can stay bonded as she heads into puberty. That's the best insurance policy she can have.

Please let me know if you have any trouble finding a therapist.
I wish you and your family every blessing.

Dr. Laura


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