Dealing with Anger and Contention
September 1988

“Dealing with Anger and Contention,” Ensign, Sept. 1988, 62

Handbook for Families

Dealing with Anger and Contention

“Get out of my room! And don’t come back!” shouts a teenager to her younger sister.

“I hate you, and I don’t want to play with you!” one little boy says to another.

A parent hisses through gritted teeth, “I’ve had enough of your talking back!”

Expressions of anger and resentment like these occur all too frequently in some families. In fact, they occur so often that some parents have resigned themselves to thinking that contention is just part of rearing children.

It is true that there is a rare time and place for the expression of righteous anger—the Lord himself has expressed indignation and anger when the circumstances warranted such reactions. Righteous anger is a controlled response to an unrighteous situation, however, not the kind of emotional outbursts most of us are all too familiar with. It is this uncontrolled, emotion-charged anger—and the attendant contention that arises out of it—that is referred to in this article.

Irritations and frustrations will occur in our homes, but frequent anger and contention do not persist where the gospel of Jesus Christ is practiced. A unified effort by both children and parents can bring into the home a spirit of love that can defuse anger and establish peace, respect, and trust.

A Manifestation of Selfishness

In many ways, expressions of unrighteous anger have their roots in selfishness. Those who respond with anger when they are frustrated or annoyed are saying, in effect, that their feelings and opinions are more important than those of others. If circumstances or the actions of others do not coincide with what they think should be, such individuals are offended and become angry.

In the same way, selfish people sometimes use anger as a way to control others. With many, it is the preferred means of manipulating people, especially their children. By raising their voices and acting mad, they make others give in to them. Unfortunately, as parents use this tactic with their children, the children adopt anger as the way to respond to anything they cannot control. A pattern of anger is established and passed from parents to children generation after generation until, somehow, the cycle is broken.

The key to overcoming a spirit of anger and contention, then, is to overcome selfishness—to try to infuse empathy and compassion into our relationships. Consider an example:

Ann had just finished straightening the living room in preparation for guests who would arrive in an hour. As she walked back into the room, she couldn’t believe what she saw.

Right in the middle of her perfectly cleaned room, four-year-old Elizabeth had dumped the contents of the vacuum, spreading a filthy dust pile nearly three feet wide in front of the fireplace. She was looking up at her mother with a helpless expression.

“What are you doing?” were the first, almost automatic words that escaped from Ann’s lips.

“I don’t know!” cried the frustrated child, knowing that her mother had reason to be angry.

Her words suddenly made Ann see the situation from her daughter’s perspective. Her anger vanished as she realized that Elizabeth had watched her preparing the room for guests and had known that vacuuming the room was a usual part of her mother’s preparations. So she had attempted to help. Somehow, though, as she dragged the vacuum into the room, the bag had come loose on the floor.

When Ann saw the situation from her daughter’s point of view, her initial feelings of anger melted into understanding. Without pretense, Ann was able to scoop Elizabeth up in her arms and say, “Thank you for helping me with this big job. I appreciate you very, very much. Can you help me put that dirt back in the vacuum so we can finish this job together?”

Recalling the incident, Ann says, “As upset as I was, I was able to see through my false desire to control Elizabeth and recognize that she had been trying to help me. That recognition softened my heart, and I responded the way I would like to always.”

No amount of anger would have cleaned the mess up any sooner, nor would the child have learned through a demonstration of anger any worthwhile lesson that would prevent future accidents. But if the parent had responded in anger, what the child would have learned was that anger is the appropriate response in this situation.

Free to Choose

The popular view of our day has been that we are not responsible for our feelings; they just happen. In this view, other people and events cause us to feel certain things, and so our only choice is how we are going to show our anger.

Burton Kelly, however, points out that emotional responses like anger are actually choices that we make. “For us to feel emotion,” he writes, “we must first be aware of some stimulus—an event, a thought, a memory. Then we interpret that stimulus—and that’s when the emotional response comes. Our interpretation can be relatively positive, neutral, or negative.” (Ensign, Feb. 1980, p. 9.) The stimulus itself has no inherent emotional charge; the emotion comes from within us because of how we choose or are conditioned to see the stimulus.

Thus, to be angry is a choice we make; it is not “caused” by anything or anyone outside ourselves. If we can teach our children, in both words and actions, that choosing not to respond in anger is within our control, we will teach them one of life’s most valuable lessons.

“When I ceased seeing my teenagers as the cause of my temper,” reports one mother, “I gained peace and began to love them again, and the verbal battles that had become commonplace became quite rare events.”

We teach that we are agents unto ourselves, free to choose what we will do and what we will not do. This agency includes control of our feelings as well as our actions. The scriptures tell us specifically that the Lord expects us to stop being contentious, to cease being angry. In fact, he has commanded us that there be “no disputations among you. … He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.

“Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.” (3 Ne. 11: 28–30; italics added.)

Since the Lord expects us to stop being contentious, to cease being angry, he must know that it is possible for us to do.

As a family, you might want to sit down together and discuss the story of the mother and daughter and the verses just quoted from 3 Nephi about being responsible for our feelings. Ask:

  1. In what ways do we surrender a significant part of our agency to another person or to circumstances when we get angry?

  2. How do we cultivate an accusing attitude when we look for someone or something else to blame for our negative feelings?

  3. How is a bond of respect and trust built when anger is replaced by charity?

A Solution for the Problem

Seen in its true light, anger is a problem whose only real, long-term solution is spiritual. According to the Nephite prophets, “There was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.” (4 Ne. 1:15; italics added.) When we are motivated by love, rather than by selfishness, we will not let anger influence our relationships with each other.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks offers a helpful insight about how we can use prayer to avoid anger and govern our undesirable feelings: “My widowed mother understood this principle. ‘Pray about your feelings,’ she used to say. She taught her three children to pray for the right kind of feelings about their experiences—positive or negative—and about the people they knew. If our feelings are good, we are more likely to have appropriate desires, to take right actions, and to act for the right reasons.” (Pure in Heart, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 150.)

As a family, you might want to ask yourselves the following questions about the nature of anger:

  1. Can we agree that being angry is a choice we make, not a response that can’t be controlled?

  2. How can our family make a united effort to abandon anger, to give it up like other bad habits?

  3. Can we ask for help during family and individual prayers to have better feelings for one another so that feelings of love and respect can replace contention and anger?

Resolving to Be Free of Anger

One of the challenges of mortality is learning to govern ourselves, to actively cultivate positive, healthy emotions and eliminate negative ones. This is an essential part of growing in spirituality.

Though the scriptures refer to several instances of righteous anger, such as when Jesus drove the money changers from the temple, the anger expressed in our homes is rarely either righteous or beneficial. “I found myself slamming doors and raising my voice, and I could see that it would be only a matter of time or degree of anger before I would blow up and do something I really regretted,” reports a father. “So I decided to make some serious changes.”

President Wilford Woodruff assures us that we can determine not to let anger control us:

“I made up my mind years ago to be governed by certain principles. I resolved that I would never be controlled by my passions … nor by anger, but that I would govern myself. This resolution I have endeavored to carry out in my life.” (Matthias Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964, p. 397.)

Children need a good example from parents and from older brothers and sisters even more than they need special instruction. If we throw or bang things, if we hit, scream, yell, or swear, our children are apt to follow our example. On the other hand, our example of love, helpfulness, tolerance, and cooperation can set a pattern children will follow in handling their angry feelings.

Elder L. Tom Perry recounts: “My first two children were born only fourteen months apart. During those first early years, how they enjoyed playing together. Then they started to compete with each other. When one was playing with a toy, the other would want it even though the whole floor was covered with toys. Then a fight would develop over that particular toy. It would continue until Father or Mother separated them. About this time, we heard a lecture from a noted college professor who was counseling parents on what to do when their children quarreled. His advice was to put them in a room and let them fight it out. He said they would soon tire of fighting. We started practicing that policy in our home. It only made matters worse because our children fought even more.

“Then one day my wife and I were reading in the book of Mosiah, the fourth chapter and the fourteenth and fifteenth verses: ‘And ye will not suffer your children … that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil … ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.’ We found the Lord’s way, as contained in the scriptures, so much better than the ways of the noted college professor. When we taught our children to love one another, peace returned to our home.” (In Costa Rica Area Conference Report, Feb. 1977, pp. 15–16.)

Harmony in the home can increase when we ask the Lord in both our family and personal prayers to help us see each other differently and control our negative feelings. If we humbly acknowledge our weaknesses before the Lord and ask him to help us overcome them, our humility and faith in him will “make weak things become strong.” (Ether 12:27.)

A good way to start changing the weaknesses in our families into strengths is to stop doing negative things. Consider this insight:

“The most powerful human incentive, in families or organizations, is the opportunity to grow in an atmosphere free from accusing attitudes and evasion. Simply giving up our own negative attitudes is the best thing we can do to help others give up their negative attitudes and grow. If this is our primary desire, there is no limit to the power for good we can have. When others give up their negative attitudes in response to us, they become free to turn and affect other people in the same way, including ourselves. What they give back to us is love. In this way individuals liberated from self-concern create around themselves a society that cares for them and motivates them further to care in return.” (C. Terry Warner, “What We Are,” BYU Studies, Winter 1986, p. 55.)

Whether we’re old or young, we are more apt to avoid anger if we acknowledge our responsibility for our anger and pray for strength to overcome it than if we excuse our weakness. As we accept responsibility for our feelings and actions, we will surely find, if we are willing to practice consistently, that a loving disposition will replace our angry and contentious spirit.

First Aid for Anger and Contention

The gospel of Jesus Christ offers the only enduring solution to the problems of contention. Even so, parents often need some temporary solutions to quarreling or fighting. But the spiritual illness only becomes more difficult to cure when busy parents fail to follow this short-term care with the more thorough treatment of charity that the gospel of Jesus Christ provides. First-aid for anger may include the following:

  1. Avoid reacting with anger when a child explodes in a tantrum. But if you do become angry, let your feelings subside before disciplining the child. Do something to let off steam, like taking a walk around the block or putting the offender in a designated “timeout place” until you cool down.

  2. If your child is angry, decline to give in to his angry demands until he finds a better way to handle his emotions.

  3. Ignore a child’s outburst, but not his feelings. Acknowledging a child’s feelings assures him that you care and allows him to see you as part of his recovery rather than as his enemy.

  4. If children are very young, try distracting them. Distraction may help the child forget his anger and give you time to deal with the root of the problem at a better time.

To permanently rid ourselves and our families of anger and the spirit of contention we must develop a spirit of unselfishness. Such a spirit attends sincere effort to think of others before ourselves and to cultivate the gift of charity, which Mormon said is available to all who seek it. “Pray unto the Father,” he said, “with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” (Moro. 7:48.)

Charity is the long-term answer to the problem of contention. Nurturing this gift takes effort, but our ability to love will mature as we apply the gospel in our lives.

Photography by Derek Smith