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Biffy is your typical eight-year-old kid. He laughs and plays. And he gets into trouble. Unfortunately, the “getting in trouble” part seems to be causing all the problems in their home. I met with Biff and Mable at the local Starbucks to talk through some of their parenting challenges with Biffy.
While they were more interested in Biffy’s wrongs, I wanted to start in another place. I asked them about them, particularly how they relate to Christ and each other. I knew that parents of rebelling children often focus too quickly on the disruptive child, bypassing an essential step in the ongoing problems.
A helpful way to think about this type of counseling case—problem-solving in a home—is to answer a few questions about the parents’ lives and marriage. If you have children who are disobeying, how would you answer these five questions? Perhaps talking about them with your spouse or a trusted friend would serve you well.
It essential to remember that no parent is the cause of a child’s misbehavior (James 1:14-15), but it’s also critical not to overlook how parental behaviors shape young hearts. Parents are like the engine in the car. A properly functioning engine will make it run optimally. If the engine is defective, the vehicle cannot be all that it should be. If you want your home to run at biblically optimal levels, you must address the engine first—the parents.
If the parents are not right with God, whatever biblical advice and instruction they provide to their children, it will not ring true. Though children can become God-centered, Christ-loving, Bible-guided adults despite their parent’s modeling and assistance, you do not want to presume on this “parental means of grace” in a child’s life.
By unpacking the parent’s relationship with God and each other, you will gain insight into the car’s engine and functionality. The discipler must not take for granted that the parents are doing all they can to help their child grow up into Christlikeness. Though you don’t want to be that cynical, suspicious friend, you want to make sure you’re unearthing all that needs addressing to help a family become biblically whole.
After spending a few moments with Biff and Mable, it became apparent that they were angry parents. When I first brought this up to them, they were immediately reluctant to accept my assessment. I get this reaction regularly when addressing angry hearts. Many Christians do not have clear-headed, biblically-derived definitions of sinful anger. Some of them play down their anger or rationalize it away.
Some believers have been angry for so long that they cannot see or hear themselves any longer. Mercifully, Biff and Mable wanted to learn more about what I was seeing. They cautiously listened as I walked them through our Anger Spectrum, which revealed many of the behaviors that characterize how they relate to each other, as well as to Biffy.
Here are a few of the angry words that did not initially fit within their initial narrow interpretation of anger. This list is not exhaustive or in any particular order. There are more of them on the Anger Spectrum infographic, which I have separated into the louder and quieter forms of sinful anger. As you roll through this list, see how many of them describe you, either episodically or as a pattern.
As we continued to delve into how their anger manifests in their home, it became apparent that Mable is an overworked, stay-at-home mom. She is tired during her waking moments and rarely rests while sleeping. Mable manages her anger, with only a few of what she calls “episodes” during the week.
Biff is an unfulfilled and overworked production worker. He feels as though he missed his calling, but he could not come up with anything when pressed on what his calling should be. He’s discontented, or, as he knows now, he’s an angry man. During their week, there are many times when their anger comes to the surface. The most apparent time is when Biffy botches something.
Biff and Mable did not see how their episodes with Biffy were part of a pattern of anger that they exhibit. They compartmentalized their “general state of anger,” which had nothing to do with Biffy, from those times when Biffy pushed their buttons, and they reacted harshly to him. They also did not see how their patterns and episodes worked together to complicate what was happening in Biffy’s mind.
Biffy is a people-pleaser, and there is nobody in his life that he wants approval from more than his parents. Biblically speaking, the fear of man (Proverbs 29:25) has captured his heart (Galatians 6:1). When he was younger, he was more optimistic about pleasing his parents. Today he is more exasperated than hopeful, which is part of the reason he acts out (Ephesians 6:4).
Biff and Mable do not understand how their angry hearts, even if they are not directing the anger toward their son, creates anxiety in him. Fussy parents make insecure children. Kids in these homes do not know how to process what their parents are doing except to internalize it—fear—or externalize it—anger. In Biffy’s case he is externalizing his hurt by acting out in anger
The ongoing anger patterns are piling onto Biffy’s pre-existing insecurities. Insecure lives need stability from the adults in the room to help settle their timid souls. Biff and Mable are complicating their son’s life. Biffy has spent many years walking on eggshells, hoping not to displease them. Today, he’s at the place of giving up.
Fortunately, the light came on for Biff and Mable. Their humility opened the door for God’s favor (James 4:6), which effectuated the beginnings of change. They became acutely aware of what they had been doing to Biffy. Even though not directed at him, their general state of anger put him in a vulnerable position. It complicated his pre-existing fear of man. Biff and Mable will have to hold their culpability and Biffy’s responsibility in the right tension. It would be easy for them to think they are the cause of his anger rather than merely a complicating factor.
When you mix a people-pleaser (Biffy) with an angry person (Biff and Mable), the “insecure acceptance-addict” will be on edge, never knowing if he has the angry person’s approval. Biffy’s parents were piling on to his pre-existing problem, making it impossible for them to help him. Their fear-based boy lives on the defensive, always tightening-up or shutting down as a matter of self-reliant self-preservation.
His approval drive was so strong that sometimes he would lie about what he was doing because he was scared of how his parents would react. He could sense in moments of tension that the wrong response meant disapproval. He erected a wall—through deceit—as a means to protect himself from their rejection. This added layer of complication circumvented any possibility of a grace-filled conversation with his parents.
There are many steps to wholeness that will take Biff and Mable years to accomplish. The first thing for them to do is recognize and own their anger—their hearts’ general state and how they episodically respond to their son. In counseling we call this a complicating problem. They are piling on to a pre-existing issue. For them to help their son, they must reign in their anger; it’s not helping. More accurately, they have to repent.
As they began to understand what is going on inside their hearts (James 4:1-3), they can identify and isolate the idolatries tempting them to become angry. Their anger is not because of Biffy but because of something broken in their individual relationships with God. Though they will not have a perfect home, they could have a repentive home, which is always the goal.
Some things are not right in their souls, which is why they must begin vertically with God, not horizontally with Biffy. At some future time, they need to talk to Biffy about their anger and what their plans are to change. Biffy needs to hear them owning something that he already knows. It will go a long way to diffuse the tension in his heart if he has assurances—backed up by measurable changes—that they recognize their part in the family’s problems. The rule-of-thumb is the sphere of offense and the sphere of confession should be similar. Biffy is part of the offended party.
In addition to owning and repenting of their sins (Ephesians 4:22), Biff and Mable must go beyond their confession, which includes putting on a new kind of behavior (Ephesians 4:24). Their anger (communication) was de-motivating Biffy. Now they can motivate him by encouragement, e.g., identifying evidence of the Lord’s good work in his life. When he does something right, they should identify it, isolate it, and let him know that he is doing a good thing.
Biffy will be leery of the changes in his parent’s lives, which is okay. Part of his apprehensiveness will be the residual fear of them getting angry with him. Biff and Mable must realize that their repentance does not mean their son will be equally repentive or receptive to his “new parents.” They also need to know that they will blow it because the angry heart does not disappear like flipping a switch.
However, their assured future failure will provide the perfect context for them to prove their seriousness about changing. When Biff and Mable get angry again, whether at Biffy or not, they can repent—again. It will be their repentance that will prove their seriousness about change and the power of God’s grace in their lives. As they live out this penitent state, they can come alongside Biffy to help him overcome his life-dominating sin of the fear of man, which is at the heart of his anger issues. Within a few weeks there should be a softening of Biffy’s heart, too.