Daniel and his wife of two years, Sonja, each brought two children into their marriage. Sonja pointed out to Daniel that each time his ex-wife disappointed his oldest daughter, Cassandra, she would take out her frustration on Sonja and her children. “When my ex says she will pick up the kids at 5 p.m. but doesn’t show until 6:30, Cassandra gets upset. Then she gets defiant, mouths off to my wife, and picks fights with her stepsisters. I’ve asked my ex-wife to keep her promises—and hopefully she will start doing so—but what can I do to help Cassandra not misplace her frustrations?”
And then, even before I could speak, Daniel had an epiphany.
“Oh my,” he said. “I do this, too.”
He thought for a moment and continued. “My wife’s ex-husband is not paying child support, and I have had to get a second job to cover our expenses. I just realized that I am easily angered by Sonja’s girls, but it’s not really them I’m angry with. What can we do about all of this?”
There are a few reasons we displace our frustrations on to others:
- It’s more expedient to be angry with those who are right in front of us. Anger is not a patient emotion. When Mom disappoints Cassandra, Mom isn’t around, but Sonja is. Likewise, Daniel doesn’t have access to his wife’s ex-husband, so he finds himself angry with the ex-husband’s children. The anger spills out on to whoever happens to be close at hand.
- It’s safer to be angry with “less important” people. Sometimes in stepfamilies, the newest members of the family (the “step-people”) are easier targets. You don’t have the same depth of relationship that you have with your own children, so they seem less important to you.
- It’s safer to be angry with safe people. There are two kinds of safe people. The first are those who we know can handle our anger. We trust them to be emotionally stable enough to take it. So really, showing them our anger is a backward compliment. The second are those connected to us in a stable relationship. Sonja’s stepdaughter has a very fragile relationship with her biological mother; for Cassandra to show anger toward her mother might push her farther away from Cassandra. It’s far less risky to be frustrated with her stepmom who has proven herself reliable.
Being responsible for our anger and managing it appropriately starts with getting centered on the real reason we are angry. But here’s an important key: We also have to recognize why we are afraid to direct the anger toward the right person. We have to ask ourselves… Am I fearful of pushing him or her further away? Am I fearful that I am partly responsible for what is happening? Am I feeling vulnerable or fragile in the home? Recognizing and taking responsibility for our fear will help us shift the focus back where it belongs.
But what if our children are misplacing their anger? How do we help them? Often the challenge is we don’t know why they’re angry, or with whom they’re angry. As parents we usually have a theory or two (and we’re often on target), but to assume we know is a mistake, especially with older children. When we approach our child, we need to be tentative with our thoughts in order to invite them to join us in exploring what is going on.
I suggested to Daniel the following script to engage his daughter. Approaching her with a soft, compassionate tone is a key to helping her find a repentant heart:
Cassandra, I’ve noticed a pattern that I need your help addressing. When your mother disappoints you, you frequently take out your frustration on Sonja or her kids. Now I know you are a generally respectful young lady, so it confuses me a little when you lash out at them. I’m thinking you are really hurt by your mom—you just take it out on the next easy target. Can you help me with that?
Once Cassandra recognizes her misplaced anger, Daniel can gently lead her to apologize to Sonja and figure out how she will appropriately deal with her hurt and anger toward her mother.