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Understanding Anger

with Lou Priolo | January 21, 2008

What should you do about your teen's anger? On today's broadcast, Lou Priolo, director of the Center for Biblical Counseling at Eastwood Presbyterian Church, helps parents understand and deal with their teens' anger.

What should you do about your teen's anger? On today's broadcast, Lou Priolo, director of the Center for Biblical Counseling at Eastwood Presbyterian Church, helps parents understand and deal with their teens' anger.

Understanding Anger

With Lou Priolo
|
January 21, 2008
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: Have you had to deal with an angry teenager recently?  Now, ask yourself, is it possible, just maybe, that you did something to provoke your child to anger?  Here is Lou Priolo.

Lou: It could very well be that Mom and Dad are provoking them to anger by their sinful behavior, or it could very well be that the parents are not sinning, they are not doing anything wrong, and the reason they're angry is because there is something they want, and they want it so much that they're willing to sin because Mom and Dad kept them from having what they wanted.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, January 21st.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  If you want to get to the heart of the issue with your teenager's anger, you may have to look at your own heart first.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  You know, we've talked on our program before about the subject of anger in the family, whether it's children who are angry or husbands who are angry or wives who are angry …

Dennis: … or parents that are angry …

Bob: … at their kids or at each other, yeah, this seems to be an issue that a lot of families are dealing with, and when we've had Lou Priolo on to talk about it, we've had a lot of listeners who have responded to what he's had to say.

Dennis: We have, and I think it's because he's touching a nerve that is located in the heart of the church.  I think the Christian community and the listeners to this broadcast experience anger on a regular basis.

 In fact, I think it may be one of the – well, it may be the least talked about but most experienced emotion of any that we experience – anger.  And I don't think we know how to handle it biblically, and I think we need some help to be able to do that, and so we invited Lou to come back and join us.  Lou, welcome back to the broadcast.

Lou: Thank you.  It's a pleasure to be here.

Dennis: He has written a book that is targeting teens.

Bob: Now, and I want to as at the beginning – do you think that's because teens are more angry than other people?

Lou: Not necessarily, except that if they haven't gotten control over their anger problem by the time they're teenagers, then they probably need some direct help, and this book was written specifically for the teenager to read along with his parents; plus the fact that there's only a few more years left before they leave the home, so this is really the time to get serious about helping them overcome their problem with anger.

Dennis: Well, the book is "Getting a Grip – The Heart of Anger, a Handbook for Teens," and, Lou, of course, has written this out of his vast experience as a counselor.  He words at Eastwood Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama, as the director of the Center for Biblical Counseling.  He is the author of a number of other books; one, in fact, about anger.  He is a speaker and sought after just a wise man in a number of areas within the Christian community.

 And I just have to ask you, Lou, why did you write this book in the first place?

Lou: Well, it's an interesting story.  I was sitting at the book table of a home educators' convention somewhere in Utah, it was somewhere in one of the Mountain Standard time zones, and these two sisters come up to me, and they said to me, "Lou, we read your book, 'The Heart of Anger,' and we really enjoyed it.   And I looked at them, and I said, 'You enjoyed it?'"  People don't usually use the word "enjoy" to describe their experience in reading that book.  They said, "We really did, but we were wondering, have you ever thought about writing a book for teenagers?"  And it was like lightning out of the blue.  I had never thought of that before but as soon as they said that I realized that was a real need.

 So I said, "No, that's a marvelous idea.  I will pray about."  It didn't take very long before I realized, you know, that this was something that needed to be done.  So I pitched it to the publisher, and they gave me the green light, and we went ahead and wrote it.

Bob: And, again, I think even with their suggestion about writing a book for teens, this does seem like something that, for whatever reason, teens aren't sure how yet to deal with the emotion that gets stirred up inside of them.  Grownups may have found a way to either cover it up or mask it or at least control it if not deal with it.

 But teenagers don't have the impulse control yet.  They're just kind of letting it out and parents aren't sure what to do.

Lou: And especially if they are from homes where the parents don't know what to do.  I mean, it's hard enough sometimes being a teen in today's culture, being frustrated when you have Mom and Dad modeling the right way to handle anger.  But when your Mom and Dad struggle with it, and they model sinful anger, then it's doubly difficult to know how to respond the right way.

Bob: Now, you just modified anger with the modifier "sinful."  Is there a difference between anger and sinful anger?

Lou: Yes, there is such a thing.  It's rare, but there is such a thing as righteous anger or holy passion.  God is angry at the wicked.  Every day Jesus looked at – it describes in the Pharisees – "in anger" the Bible says.  Actually, in Ephesians 4 there is a command to be angry.  You're familiar with the verse – it says, "Be angry and do not sin."  Well, it's an imperative in the Greek so, arguably, there are times in our lives when we are sinning when we don't get angry.

 But the problem is the overwhelming majority of the 500-plus times the word "anger" or the concept of anger is described in the Bible, it is sinful anger.

Dennis: Give us a working definition of what anger is.  I think most of us, as human beings, know anger when we see it.  We know it sometimes when we feel it and experience it, but a lot of times I think we're experiencing it, and we're totally out of touch.  What is anger?

Lou: The definition I like the most goes something like this – anger is an emotion given to us by God for the purpose of attacking or destroying something.  You know, when we get angry, our adrenal glands pump adrenalin into our system, and so at that point it's partly biological, and we are poised, you've heard it said, the "fight or the flight syndrome."  We are poised either to fight, to attack the problem – sometimes we attack the other person, or sometimes we run.

 But the fact of the matter is, God wants us to learn how to control that energy under the power of the spirit and to point it in the right direction.

Dennis: And you mentioned that anger was given to us for the purpose of – what was that again?

Lou: Attacking or destroying something.

Dennis: Attacking or destroying something – there's a lot of moms of teenagers who know exactly what you're saying at this point.  They are the object of the attack.

Bob: But God didn't give their teenager anger so that the teenager would attack or destroy furniture or a room or a relationship, right?

Lou: Right.  Whenever there is a problem in our lives, there is always a tendency for us to become angry.  And there are two sinful manifestations of anger – two extremes, I guess, we could say, that people tend to go to when they're angry.  Some people, when they become angry, they keep it all inside.  They internalize their anger.  We use the more theologically accurate term – we say that they "clam up."

 Well, when you keep anger inside who are you destroying with that anger?

Bob: You.

Lou: Yeah, you may hurt the other person, too, but, to a large extent, that anger is inside, and you are being destroyed with it.  When you go to the other extreme, and ventilate that anger, you're blowing up, and then you're actually attacking someone else. 

 So it's sort of like you have this dart.  You're angry, and you've got this dart in your hand, and you can either swallow the dart and hurt yourself, or you can throw the dart at the other person and hurt the other person, but that's not why God gave you the dart.  He gave you the dart so that you can throw the dart at the problem.

Bob: You know, we consider and have a conversation like this as three mature adult men who understand the Scriptures and who …

Dennis: – who, at the moment, are under control.

Bob: That's right.  But when you sit down with an angry 13-year-old, and you start talking about the darts and about righteous anger and about – all that 13-year-old knows, typically, is "I'm just mad.  I'm angry, and I don't like the way I'm being treated, and I'm hurt, and I don't want people to treat me this way."

 So how do you handle a 13-year-old or, let's say a mom and a 13-year-old come in and say, "Lou" – here's the mom – "Lou, I don't know what to do.  She loses her temper, she mouths off, she's started using profanity.  She's started cursing at her father and at me.  She's out of control, and I don't know what to do.  What do we do?"

Lou: Well, I think the first thing you have to do is realize that most teenagers understand that they're angry – maybe not to the degree to which they're angry, but they understand that they've got an issue with anger even though, as I said, it might be somewhat minimized in their lives but, more importantly, most of them know that they are already suffering the consequences of their anger.

 And so what I'm trying to say is that in many of them, I daresay, in most of them, there is a part of them that really wants to learn how to get it under control, because they know that they're suffering consequences.  Maybe it's just in the home right now, or maybe it's started to bleed over into their other relationships. 

 So I think the first thing to do is to try to help them understand that there is a problem with anger and that there are consequences for that anger.

Bob: But don't you think that a teenager is thinking, "Well, I know what the problem is.  I know why I'm angry.  It's my mom, it's my dad, it's the unreasonable stuff.  If I was living outside the house, if I was living at Sally's house"…

Dennis: "If I had freedom"…

Bob: Yeah, "I wouldn't be angry."

Lou: And that's why it's so important for parents to teach their teens and their younger children the difference between righteous anger and sinful anger.  It could very well be that Mom and Dad are provoking them to anger by their sinful behavior, or it could very well be that the parents are not sinning, they are not doing anything wrong, and the reason they're angry is because there is something they want, and they want it so much that they are willing to sin because Mom and Dad kept them from having what they wanted.

Bob: So you're saying the teenager may be inappropriately expressing what is legitimate, or righteous, anger because Mom and Dad are messing up as parents?

Lou: I'm saying before the teenager decides what he's going to do, how he's going to express his anger, he's got to make sure that it's the right kind of anger not the wrong kind of anger.  In other words, he's got to be sure that he's angry because someone has sinned against him not because someone has not given him what he wants.

 I mean, that's really the difference between righteous anger and sinful anger.  Sinful anger is the result of our not getting what we want.  Righteous anger is the result of God not getting what He wants.  In other words, when somebody sins, and we become angry, then, chances are, that's the right kind of anger.

 But when we get angry simply because no one has sinned but we're not getting what we want then, chances are, that is a sinful kind of anger.

Bob: And I'm guessing that 99.79 percent of teenage anger is unrighteous, it's sinful anger, it's "I'm not getting what I want, and Mom and Dad are the problem, as I see it, because they're not giving me what I want."

Lou: Certainly a high percentage is, but then there's the other side of the coin that does say that moms and dads often do provoke their children to anger by the things that they do and that they don't do.  In the original book, I identify 25 ways parents typically provoke their children to anger.

Bob: Yeah, I hated that part of the book, by the way.

Dennis: I did, too.  I do want to go to the 99 percent, which I think is an inappropriate use of anger back at the parents either to lash out or to go their room and completely withdraw.  Where does a parent begin when he sees his son, his little boy, who he used to have these golden moments with, or his daughter who was his princess, who was always looking forward to him coming home; now, all of a sudden, there is this distance, and it's a growing distance because there is this emotion that is fueling the chasm between them.  Where does a parent start?

Lou: I still maintain, Dennis, that the best place to start is for the parents to sit the child down and to ask the child to explain to him how he, the parent, has sinned against the child.  In other words, I still think the best way for a parent to approach this is to be willing, first, to get the beam out of his own eye.

 "You seem to be very angry at me, in fact, it seems to go beyond anger, it seems like you're bitter at me, that you're holding a grudge against me, and I want to know how have I sinned against you?"  You might even want to as him, "Of all the ways that I've hurt you over the years that you've not been able to get over, what are the top three?  Tell me how I've hurt you?"

 And, at that point, the teen can't say, "Well, you hurt me because you didn't buy me the Jaguar that I wanted for my birthday."  I mean, it's got to be a viable sin.  It's got to be something that the teen can even say, "Mom, Dad, look, even in the Bible you shouldn't be doing this."

 And, arguably, the Bible says that the wisdom from above is reasonable.  So, you know, a teenager really ought to have some sense that he's got a fighting chance, once in a while at least, to change his parents' minds.

Dennis: And what I might add to that, Lou, is I would give your teenager a little time to sort through the list.

Lou: Exactly.

Dennis: As human beings, we all process at different speeds.  I can see how a real quick-thinking child might be able to nail that, but a child who has difficulty sorting through his or her own emotions and may have a slower processor in terms of how they handle things, may need a day.

Lou: Sure.

Dennis: Say, "Tomorrow night after dinner we're going to sit down and talk, and we're going to ask the question 'How has Mom offended you, disappointed you, and how has Dad disappointed you?'"

Bob: But, you know, here is what I'm expecting you would be likely to hear from most teenagers – "You have sinned against me," or "You have disappointed me," or "You've offended me because I can't go out until midnight on Friday nights like my friends can."

Dennis: Well, I can give you an illustration of that, Bob.  It's the "caged bird" story.  I mean, I had a daughter who kept wanting to be free, and she just completely pounded on us, as parents, saying, "You're too tight.  You have too many restrictions.  I can't do anything right."  And ultimately her canary got away from the cage and flew away and ultimately died, and I made the point with her, ultimately, that God has us within a protective environment because we don't know what's best for us.  We don't know what's out there.

 And almost all of our children did exactly what you're talking about, Bob – they pressed the limits.

Bob: And most teenagers are frustrated because they do want more autonomy than most of us, as parents, think they're ready for.  So they express that in anger.  When we say "No, here's a restriction, here's a boundary," and they go, "Well, that's not biblical.  There's nothing in the Bible that says that's right, and why can't you parents be more reasonable and let me have more of my way?"

Lou: Well, typically, I'll respond to that something like this – "Sweetheart, freedom comes by trust.  The more you demonstrate to Mom and Dad that you can be trusted, the more freedom you'll have.  So it really is a matter of your teaching us that you'll make wise decision after wise decision after wise decision with relatively few foolish decisions, and as we see you learn how to make those decisions, then we will give you more freedom.  But to the extent that we see you make more foolish decisions than wise decisions, then we're not going to be able, in good conscience, to give you that freedom."

 Look, we've got two choices.  Either we're going to say, "Go for it.  We want you to succeed, we know that you're able to do this, we trust you," or we're going to say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, not so fast.  Either we're going to push you to do good, or you're going to force us, by your immaturity, to have to control you and keep you back from the freedom that you want until you first demonstrate to us that you are able to handle that freedom."

Dennis: But the teenager says back to you, Dad, "I don't like your boundaries."

Lou: "Well, sweetie, they're not my boundaries, they're God's boundaries."

Bob: "But this curfew, midnight, where is that God's boundaries?"

Dennis: "All my friends, even my Christian friends, can stay out until much later than you say I can stay out."

Lou: "Well, sweetheart, why God gave you the frumpy old curmudgeony parents that He did, who have got these legalistic rules, I don't know, but the bottom line is God has given them to us, and if you have any hope of getting us to rethink our position on any of these things, doing it in this disrespectful manner is not going to get you there."

Dennis: Okay, and at that point, the teen stands up, gets into a shouting match, and storms out of the room, slams the door, rattles all the walls in the house, what are you going to do, Dad?

Lou: In some form or fashion, you're going to, without gloating, let the child that he's made your case for him; that he's acting more like a child than like an adult.

Dennis: Okay, but when would you do that?  Would you go into the room and do that?  Would you wait until he or she simmers down a bit?  How would you handle it?

Lou: Yeah, that's a judgment call.  Probably I would give them some time to simmer down, and then I would go back and try to talk to him first about the way he responded, the sinfully angry and disrespectful way that he or she responded, and then I would go back and help him see from the Scriptures that the reason he was so angry is because he was displeased with the authority that God has placed over him.

Bob: Can you think of the angriest, most disruptive teenager you've seen come into your office with Mom and Dad, and were you able, through a process, to get that teenager to confront their anger, or does some of this just play out, over time?

Lou: I think the thing we have to keep in mind is that God is sovereign.  So, yes, we have seen teenagers relatively quickly learn how to control their anger, and we've seen teenagers not learn initially, and then, years later, come back and get things straightened out.

Bob: Years later?

Lou: Yes.

Bob: So it could be that parents are in for a long ride with an angry teen?

Lou: Yes, but that is more the exception than the rule.

Bob: Okay. 

Lou: Again, as long as the child is under your authority, then you've got to have hope that you can do something to bring about a change.  And even in the cases where it may take years for the child to turn around and come back, the time that you spend initially trying to help him change, the Lord is going to use, ultimately, to bring about repentance.

Dennis: I want to make two points here.  First of all, Lou, you're little role play, which you took us through, and then how you were coaching a teenager to learn how to speak respectfully – I think that is so important.  And I think it is the parents' responsibility to come alongside them and say, "No, that's not acceptable.  Here is the pattern of how I can best hear information, hurt, disappointment from you," as my son or daughter.

 But the second thing that I just want to affirm here is that parents have to take responsibility for the issue, and it begins with them as the parent.  If we are angry, out-of-control parents, we're going to have angry, out-of-control children because our model will be a bad influence on our children, and what we say will never have a chance to penetrate their hearts.

 And that's why I'd say, for a parent who is struggling with anger – you mentioned it earlier on the broadcast.  Get this book and go through it with your teen.

Bob: Are you talking about the parent being angry or both parent and teen being angry?

Dennis: Well, I'm talking about the parent and the teen experiencing anger.  I think there's a lot for me to learn from my children.  In fact, there was a lot that I learned from my children about how I handled my anger and, personally, I wish we'd had a book like this, because I do believe in family after family, even in the Christian community, anger is like an iceberg.  We see just a little tip, but 90 percent is underneath the surface.

 I think if most of us could have our last week replayed on a screen in front of our spiritual peers, I think perhaps there might be some interesting, maybe shameful, looks on faces just to see how much we, as parents, failed, and how much we do need to lead and love our children.

Bob: You know, if a parent were to order a copy of this book and just toss it to their teenager and say, "Here read this" …

Dennis: … that's right …

Bob: … "and this will fix you."  It probably is not going to do you any good.

Dennis: That's probably not going to be it.

Bob: But if you got a copy of the book and said, "Listen, here is what I want to do, because I have to deal with my anger the same way you have to deal with your anger.  So, together, let's go through this, and I'm not going through it just so I can keep pointing the finger at you.  I'm trying to see what God is going to teach me as we go through this, and I want you to see what God is going to teach you, and let's see if we both can't learn some things."                I'm guessing you could make some progress with a teen.

 We've got copies of Lou's book in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  The title of the book, again, is "Getting a Grip," and, as I said, it's not a book you read, it's a book you do.  It's a workbook.

 You can go to our website, FamilyLife.com.  In the middle of the home page you'll see a red button that says "Go."  Click on that button, and it will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about Lou's book.  You can order it from us online, or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY, that's 1-800-358-6329, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and someone on our team will work with you to make sure a copy of the book gets sent out to you.

 So, either way, go online at FamilyLife.com or call our toll-free number and make arrangements to get a copy of Lou's book.

 Also, if you can help the ministry of FamilyLife Today this month with a donation of any amount, we have a very special thank you gift we'd like to send you.  Dennis and Barbara Rainey have just written a new devotional for couples.  It's called "Moments With You" – 365 daily devotions for couples to do and even though 2008 is a leap year, and they don't have a devotion for February 29th, you'll have to come up with something else to do spiritual on that day.  But the other 365 days, we've got you covered.

 These daily devotions provide you with something that you can talk about together, something you can pray through together, and it helps get you centered spiritually as a couple.  We want to send you a copy of this book as our way of saying thank you for your financial support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  Because we are listener-supported, we depend on donations from folks like you to continue this ministry, and this book is our way of saying thank you this month when you make a donation of any amount to the ministry of FamilyLife Today.

 You can donate online at FamilyLife.com, and if you're doing that, as you fill out the donation form online, you'll come to a keycode box.  Just type the word "Moments" in the box so that we know to send you a copy of this book, or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  You could make a donation over the phone and just mention that you'd like the devotional "Moments With You," from Dennis and Barbara Rainey, and we're happy to send it out to you.

 Let me just say thanks for your partnership with us.  We appreciate your financial support of this ministry.

 Now, tomorrow we want to talk about how you cure anger.  I don't know that there is a sure-fire cure or pill that you take that fixes everything for all time, but we do want to talk about the biblical principles that are the antidote to anger, and I hope you can join us for that.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. 

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