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Grieving husband takes out anger on 5-year-old son

Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi Carolyn:

I’m trying to figure out how to approach my husband, who over the past year has developed an undercurrent of anger that bursts out not infrequently, particularly toward our 5-year-old son. The anger is probably coming from watching his mother deteriorate; her memory is going, and we see her many times a week so we have front-row seats. I wish he’d see a therapist, but he’s done it before and says, “It doesn’t work for me” — although I noticed the other day when he took his mom to a support group that included caregivers, he was distinctly calmer and softer afterward.

My main worry is for my son, who’s a wonderful guy but very typical for his age with squirming, not putting on shoes, etc. I’ve tried several tactics and the best one seems to be to retain a strong bond with my husband (rather than just get mad at him), even while defending our son. And he’s gotten better over the course of the year. But do you have any other thoughts or tips/techniques for how to approach someone who’s in a crisis that’s affecting others, but won’t get help?

— Anger Issues

Oh my goodness this makes me nuts. Therapy is not a single thing, like penicillin, where it’s useless if you’re allergic or have a virus. Therapy is a range of treatments that varies with the type of training and strategy, the goals, the underlying condition being treated, and the skill level and even personality of the therapist. Therapy with one therapist is just that, a data set of one.

And being the parent of a 5-year-old child you’re yelling at for squirming means you have a higher responsibility than to your own preconceived notions about mental health care.

These arguments are for your husband, obviously — so please convey them. His past therapy experience is not relevant now. What is relevant is his mismanaged anger, particularly its impact on a child. Sometimes, adults must set themselves aside for a greater good.

And sometimes they also have to shop around for the right therapist. Talk to those caregivers at the support group; I bet they have ideas.

And while I advise this with some trepidation because it can easily come off as snark, your husband’s own words might serve you best: “Your untreated anger doesn’t work for me, either, and it’s not working for our boy. You’re a good man with a good heart and you’re under a lot of pressure — and you’re grieving. Please let me help you take care of your mom by finding supportive care for you.”

Maybe he’d agree to grief support? Or a support group for caregivers? Then he could tell himself it’s not therapy. Whatever gets it done.

Re: Anger:

Right now, today, you can suggest that he find another outlet for his (perfectly normal) anger and frustration with his mother’s impending death. Get him some self-care: respite, time for a self-soothing hobby, more sleep, maybe a nice anger outlet like a heavy bag or time at the shooting range. You can do this AND act as a buffer between him and your son AND point out this current dynamic can’t continue. And sure, if you can get him to therapy, great.

— Anonymous

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