There are few things more frightening to a child than the angry dad. An angry dad in the home is the metaphorical equivalent of rolling a child’s heart through a mine field. If the dad does not change, the child will be set up for a lifetime of struggle.
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The angry dad forces the child to live between two worlds: (1) strive to be perfect for his father or (2) receive his exasperating disapproval (Ephesians 6:4). The accumulative effect of that kind of tension is hard to overcome.
Many children never completely overcome it. I have counseled a few “50-year old” children who are still trying to please their fathers, even though some of their dads died many years ago.
Born To Be Fearful
All children come into our world timid and insecure while longing for stability and safety. This is part of what it means to be born in Adam. Adam walked away from God (Genesis 3:6-7) and part of the consequences of his sin was fearful insecurity (Genesis 3:8-10). We have inherited the results of his actions (Romans 5:12). Fear, timidity, and uncertainty are part of every person’s Adamic nature.
Imagine a child coming into our cold, harsh world only to find himself dependent and vulnerable to an angry dad. It’s a lose-lose situation. The hope for help for what is broken inside of him will probably not happen while he’s in the home. In nearly all of these cases, the effect on the child is that he reacts poorly toward God and others.
Children are born to fail because they were born in Adam, and when the “big people” in his life (his parents) fail him, there is little hope to exit childhood unscathed. No child has the spiritual or psychological ability to accurately process what is happening to him.
Initially, it’s a shock to observe his parent’s failure. He perceives them as perfect. And why not? They are older, taller, stronger, smarter, and less dependent than he is. They are also his authority figures.
It stands to reason for the child to see his parents as perfect because they are in the know and always right–at least from the child’s perspective. Even if the child does perceive his dad’s wrongs, he will not stand up to him. He is forced to suck it up while internalizing the confusion in his soul.
This kind of child is laboring under Adam’s curse as well as the depravity of his dad. It is too much to ask a child in this situation to be mature by doing the right thing.
The Angry Quiet Child
It will be the child’s constitution that will determine how he internalizes, processes, and responds to what is happening to him. If the child’s tendencies are toward introversion, he will become quiet. Being quiet will be his refuge and escape. Being quiet will be his way of hiding in plain sight of his dad.
The quiet child could choose to enter the cyber worlds of television or video games. This will not only remove him, in a virtual way, from the chaos of his home, but it will allow him to create safe vicarious contexts to enjoy. For example, a 30-minute TV sitcom will give him 24 minutes (6 minutes of commercials) to fantasize how life could be. Most sitcoms follow this story arc in four parts:
- Part One: A perfect world.
- Part Two: A problem arises.
- Part Three: The problem is solved.
- Part Four: A perfect world again.
If he chooses video games, he can learn how to become good at something. With winning possibilities in view, he enters the theater of his own mind where victory is only a few levels away. With enough persistence and assurance of unending resurrections, he can enjoy a fantasy that is radically different from his hellish home life.
The sad part about the internalization of his troubles is that he is actually seething in low-grade anger. He doesn’t necessarily show his anger at an early age, but the turmoil and confusion will eventually come out after he becomes an adult.
For now, he’s too young to articulate what is happening to him. So he quietly sits and simmers until the day when he is able to express through words and deeds what he has been harboring in his heart for years. Many parents of this kind of child scratch their heads as they wonder why all this anger is coming out of their teenage son.
The Angry Acting Out Child
If the child’s personality is bent toward extroversion, he will be outwardly angry, competitive, or whiny. Manipulation will be his modus operandi. He will be angry with those he can be angry with because it is his way of being in control of the world that is mostly out of his control.
His manipulative anger will offset the inferiority that is being leveled at him from his domineering and dictatorial dad. He will find those he can defeat, which will more than likely be his mother.
His behavior will ironically mirror his dad’s superiority-through-anger behavior. If that does not work, he will be whiny, which is a different iteration, though from the same angry heart of a boy who has to get his way (James 4:1-3).
- The quiet child is afraid to take a bold stand because he is not sure he can win. He is afraid of being yelled at or condemned. His dad’s anger circumvents his desire to perform or achieve.
- The acting out child models his dad’s angry aggression. He is not timid about taking by force what he craves. He will either win or complain about losing.
All Things In Common
The one thing these kids have in common is their desire to be good at something. They choose what is best suited for their personality types in order to overcome the displeasure of their fathers.
- The quiet child does not want to displease, so he chooses passivity and non-aggression.
- The extroverted child seeks to overcome by initiating aggressive, superiority tactics.
Because of their Adamic deficits, there will be a distance between who they are and what God intends for them to be. It is the parent’s job to shepherd the child’s heart, as they cooperate with God in leading the child to the only Person who can transform him from being Adamic to being Christlike (Colossians 1:28).
This distance between the child and God can be helped or hindered by his parents. A child’s father is instrumental in this process because he is the earliest, clearest, and most profound picture that a child will ever see of God the Father. This is what some have called mutual exclusivity, which is how a child learns words.
A young child can only apply one label to one object. He does not have the ability to consider one thing being called by two names. An elephant is an elephant, not a Pachyderm, which could mean elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus. When it comes to what a father is, the child develops his label, definition, and interpretation of a father by observing his father (1 Corinthians 11:1).
He understands what God the Father is like through the attitudes, words, and actions of his earthly father. It never occurs to a young child that there could be two kinds of fathers. If a father is a poor representation of God the Father (Ephesians 5:1), the child will have a difficult time as an adult relating to the Lord.
It could take years and a lot of work for him to realize that God the Father will not treat him harshly or unkind, and He will not relate to him based on his most recent performance.
Hopefully, he will learn that rather than placing harsh demands on him for his poor performance, his heavenly Father chose to punish Jesus for the things that are wrong with him. It will be the love of his heavenly Father that will draw the child to freedom, not the anger of a father (Romans 2:4).
Nothing relieves the pressure to perform for acceptance like a father’s approval. If you are motivated to serve God out of fear instead of love, you are nothing more than a nervous circus performer. The angry dad creates this kind of nervousness in a child’s heart.
The child of an angry dad has a hard time embracing the mercy, favor, grace, and love of God because it has never been his experience. How could he think otherwise? The only father he ever knew was an angry man, who put him under the fear of never meeting his expectations.
A Note On Anger
Some dads may read this and say they do not have the kind of angry anger that I am writing about. I hope that is true. Still yet, any kind of ongoing disapproval will have a negative impact on your child. Your child looks up to you. He is born insecure and uncertain. He is unsure if he is doing things correctly. He needs to know that you are for him (Romans 8:31; Genesis 39:2). He needs your affirmation (Mark 1:11).
Dad, you are the primary person in his life to affirm your affection and approval of him. If you are harsh, picky, unkind, uncharitable, unloving, or disapproving in any way, you are sending a strong message to him that he does not measure up to your standard. As he grows older, there is a near 100% chance he will look for approval in other places. Here are seven of those places the child of an angry dad could be tempted to go:
- Legalistic religious environments become a haven for the child craving approval.
- Teenage love seems to be the perfect place to get an approval drive stroked.
- Running with the wrong crowd does not seem wrong if they will accept him.
- Choosing a gay lifestyle seems wise if being loved is the result.
- Pornography is a rejection-free world where you can be gratified physically and emotionally.
- Drugs and alcohol make for easy escapes from disapproving parents.
- Even your child’s greatest strengths can become his greatest weaknesses when used for the applause of others.
Dad, you must repent of all of your angry sins, including the rolling of your disapproving eyes or the elevated tones in your voice sins. Even these lesser and seemingly inconsequential sin patterns let him know he is not accepted by you. (Note the many manifestations of anger in the Anger Spectrum.)
There is a way to deal with your child’s sin, but any expression of sinful anger, no matter how subtle you believe it to be, is not the answer.
Though you may not be a cursing or throwing things across the room kind of dad, please examine your attitudes and actions regarding how you respond to your children.
Call to Action
Ask your spouse or your friends how they have observed you talking to your children. Don’t fall for the self-righteous comparison trap: I’m not as bad as so and so (2 Corinthians 10:12). You may not be as bad as your friend, but the person you want to compare yourself to is Jesus Christ, not another sinner. (See Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9)
Let me press the point further: You must go far beyond the subtle forms of disapproval like the rolling of the eyes or huffing under your breath. Even apathy is a form of anger and hatred. There is no neutrality between love and hate. All of your expressions represent either love or hate toward your child.
Your goal must not be just to stop being angry. You must go beyond putting off the negative. You must put on the positive (Ephesians 4:22-24). You must become a lover and an encourager of your children. If you have been motivating them by fear because of your anger, I appeal to you to repent by learning how to motivate them by kindness. For example, you could say this to your child:
Son, if you knew that you could answer this question in any way that you wanted to, and that I would not become angry with you, how would you answer this question: “When you think of me as a dad, what are you more aware of: my approval and affirmation or my disapproval and displeasure?”
Dear dad, You will not be able to stop being angry all by yourself. I encourage you to find help. Sanctification happens in a community.
I appeal to you to humble yourself before God and others. Do not try this alone. Ask your pastor or spiritual leader in your local church to help you. Release your kids from the bondage of fear (Hebrews 2:14-15).
If you determine that you are going to repent, go to your children and confess your sins, while appealing to them to forgive you. Ask for their care and accountability if they are old enough to provide it. Give them the opportunity to serve you. Let them help you overcome the sin of anger.
Also published on Medium.