The Anger Epidemic Is Coming For American Parents

"I see divorces trending upwards in the long term.”

by Aaron Stern
Originally Published: 

The coronavirus has upturned lives and forced families inside. Everything is tighter, more confined. The days are forming together into one, amorphous block . Kids have less space to play. Parents have fewer outlets to unwind and de-stress. The economy is circling the abyss. Anxieties are redlining. The opportunity for anger is everywhere.

“How would I describe it?” asks Jered, a father of two kids under 5. “Mayhem,” he says. “Juggling little kids who can’t burn their energy inside the house combined with the stress of not knowing what’s going to happen – medically, economically, for our business — is a lot to process.”

It is. And all of the uncertainty and anxiety that parents are facing isn’t only leading to frustration. Experts say it will lead to a national rise in misdirected anger, with implications that will strain families like never before.

Blowing up is a normal human reaction to stressful circumstances and being a parent is, to put it mildly, a stressful circumstance. However understandable that may be, issues arise when anger becomes overwhelming or constant. Now? Everything’s in overdrive.

“Under normal circumstances, anger can lead to family dysfunction, yelling, profanity, insulting the person, motor aggression, impulsive behavior, engaging in vengeful behavior, interpersonal issues at work, domestic violence, and substance use,” Dr. Tom DiBlasi, Assistant Professor of Psychology at St. Joseph’s College. But, as DiBlasi points out, these are not normal circumstances.

Parents fight with their children approximately 2,184 times a year, which translates to over 180 arguments a month, 42 a week, or six a day depending on how you do the division. The numbers indicate that the average intergenerational family fight lasts about eight minutes, adding up to almost an hour of conflict a day. Now, locked down and struggling to handle a wide variety of emotions and scenarios, these numbers will most certainly rise.

Anger is a primitive emotion. Let’s consider yelling, a common manifestation of parental frustration and anger. For kids, yelling can be both bad (“Be quiet!”) and good (“Be quiet or you’ll wake that sleeping bear!), but it’s always notable. Raising your voice at children in non-life threatening situations can be counterproductive in both the short and the long run, and becomes something they quickly learn to ignore.

The only time parents should yell is when their child is in imminent danger. They need to be models of self-regulation — calm and reassuring in the face of misbehavior. Parents need to control themselves.

That control is difficult to maintain under ordinary circumstances. But, of course, what we are all dealing with are not ordinary circumstances. And the anger households are likely to experience during this period of uncertainty will not only be aimed at children.

Dr. DiBlasi notes that the risk for all the manifestations of anger increases when people are forced to be with someone for an extended period of time. This, unsurprisingly, means that parents not only run the risk of blowing up at their kids more often but also getting into it with their spouses. This can have severe effects on a marriage as well as the general family dynamic.

“My concern is that couples are now forced to isolate at home and will now be with each other 24/7 without any respite such as seeing friends or going to work,” says Dr. John Schinnerer, an executive coach who has a Ph.D. in psychology and consulted on Pixar’s Inside Out.

That’s not even the whole of Dr. Schinnerer’s picture. Staying cooped without normal schedules or activities is emotionally dysregulating. Parents can often be pressure cookers but they have release valves — sports, social gatherings, interactions with other parents. Under current restrictions, many of these valves are unable to be reached.

“There is no release to let go of the pressure, particularly if there are children at home,” says Dr. Schinnerer. He adds that, unsurprisingly, this will lead to increasing irritability, anger and explosive outbursts. “It will also, in my opinion, lead to more drug and alcohol use. This, in turn, will likely lead to more emotional, verbal, and physical abuse of spouses and children,” he says. “I see divorces trending upwards in the long term.”

As an example of the latter, one only needs to look at the place where the coronavirus first hit. In China, which is only just now beginning to come out from under the coronavirus nightmare, more than 300 couples have filed for divorce since February, with some divorce lawyers reporting waiting lists of up to three weeks.

“The mounting pressures make everyone more vulnerable to anger,” says Dr. DiBlasi. Most people are more impatient now, and it is easy to incidentally take it out on the people you see the most – especially, when we are quarantined.

In fact, Dr. DiBlasi says that, on average, more than half of our anger is directed at people we like or love. “You may not mean to take your anger out on them, but it often happens,” he says.

As fear, anxiety, and uncertainty spread at a similar rate of the coronavirus, millions are dealing with these same issues. In speaking with several parents for this story, their responses created a mosaic of fears and stresses nearly identical to one another. Everyone’s just trying to cope as best as they can.

“When you’re essentially trapped with anyone for a long period of time… you get snippy, you have very little patience for people’s quirks like you normally would,” says Perry Lee, a father of a four-year-old daughter.

Colleen Mason, a mom of three, says she and her husband, Casey, are both working from home; one runs a construction company, the other manages a team of scientists and engineers.

“Add an 8-, 6-, and 3-year-old to the mix, school assignments for the two older kids, and it equals tag-team parenting, working after the kids are asleep, working in the evenings, and saying no to our kids almost all day long,” she says.

Many schools are offering online education, and Lee says that daily social interaction with their friends and teachers is really helpful. But inevitably parents are facilitating or full-on trying to lead their kids’ educations right now; the older kids get, the harder that can be – teaching methods change, and maybe you weren’t great at math to begin with, says Shontia Drake, the mother of an eight-year-old boy.

“He’s losing-his-mind bored,” she says. “It’s very difficult to keep him entertained while limiting his screen time. We’ve been going to a walking trail near the house but the rain today isn’t helping. Also, he’s a mathematical genius and I still count on my fingers.”

“I’ve definitely screamed at my kids and argued with my wife more in the past two weeks than I have in the past few months,” says Nate, who is currently sheltering in place with his kids in Westchester County, New York. “I’m trying to work on it. But it seems impossible.”

Anger can be an inescapable feedback loop. “By acting angrily, you actually increase the likelihood of continuing to act angrily, just as acting loving and compassionate tends to increase the individual’s tendency towards love and compassion,” psychotherapist Ross Grossman told Fatherly.

This, of course, is easier said than done. These are unprecedented times. Anger will be present. It is nearly unavoidable right now. But parents need to be mindful of their fears, anxieties, and frustrations and find ways to release them so as not to infect their kids and each other. Let’s not kid ourselves. We will all yell more. We will all blow up. That comes with the territory. But we need to take self-care measures to control our impulses the best we can. When the quarantine ends and the doors open, hopefully families will all still want to walk out together.

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