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I'm Confused By My Adult Son's Anger

by Sam
(Washington )



I have a 40-year old son who has increasing episodes of angry outbursts that he says I am triggering, but I can't see what I'm doing or saying that sets him off, as it seems to come out of seeming normal conversation. He yells at me to back off, says he feels disrespected if I don't right away, that I'm attacking him and I should just stop.

I never know what it is that I'm supposed to stop! If I just get very quiet, he seems to recover very rapidly, like nothing happened. I am tired of being shut down out of nowhere, and I am left with stifled hurt and anger long after he 'recovers.'


My son is very bright, and has a very kind heart, with many interests and a brain that is hopping with lots of ideas and great creativity. He's very verbal and expressive of his thoughts and feelings. He is recovering from years of drug use, and is doing very well with staying clear of substance abuse.

My son's father, who had very serious depression problems and then joined a cult, abandoned him when he was very young. I have bipolar relatives on my father's side of the family, too. I don't seem to have gotten it. My son has not been diagnosed with it, but I am increasingly suspicious that he might have some form of it. He does not want me to question him about that.

Before I knew he was using drugs, I thought his symptoms looked like bi-polar symptoms, and with recovery, some of them have subsided, but not in his dealings with me. When he was married, the attacks on me disappeared, but with their divorce, I am the target again. He also has anger problems with his two sisters on occasion, and has a short fuse with workmates, his ex-wife and her two kids, drivers, and people whose opinions are unlike his own.

Actually, looking back, he has always had a relatively mercurial temperament, but only in the last fifteen years has he been verbally attacking me. I try to let it go, but lately am suggesting to him that we need to work this through, but he says he doesn't want to discuss his anger with me. He isn't getting that it would be useful for me to know what it is that I'm doing that is triggering him.

His attacks leave me feeling sad, confused, angry, hopeless, even doubtful of my conversational skills. I have lots of friends and other family, though, and I don't encounter similar problems in my relationships with them. I have always been very loving to my son, and other than these episodes, we enjoy being with one another.

I hate thinking that I am hurting him, hate that he sees me as some kind of monster (even though at other times, he says what a wonderful mom I am), and hate the mine field that each encounter with him now seems like. I don't want to abandon him, but I can pretty much count on an attack if I spend any time with him.

I don't know what to do that can improve a feeling of safety for both of us. I don't want to give up on having a relationship with him, as but for the interludes of the attacks, much of the time we enjoy each other's company.

What do you recommend I do when I am the target of his outbursts? Does it matter whether he has bi-polar or some other kind of mental illness? Is a behavioral approach effective regardless of his brain chemistry? Should I drop out of his life if he is unwilling to explore anger management generally or if he refuses to engage with me in sharing and listening to one another about how we are experiencing these bouts of anger?

How do you suggest I manage my own feelings of victimization? I know I can't fix this by myself, and I have a counselor I talk to regularly, although her forte is not anger-management or brain chemistry. How do I effectively express care for him, and also for myself?

Are there support groups for targets of anger from one's grown kids?

Thank you for reading this, and for whatever you can suggest.



Response from Dr. DeFoore

Hello Sam, and thanks for telling your story here. I can tell that you love your son a lot, and that the relationship is important to you. Your thinking seems very clear, and I think you're doing a good job so far of trying to manage.

I will answer each of your questions.

1) What do you recommend I do when I am the target of his outbursts?

Let him know in a firm but loving way that you will only choose to interact or be with him when he treats you in a respectful manner. If he continues, remove yourself from the situation. Don't argue or discuss.

2) Does it matter whether he has bi-polar or some other kind of mental illness? Is a behavioral approach effective regardless of his brain chemistry?

In my opinion, no, it does not matter. I wouldn't worry about a diagnosis, as it sounds like that really wouldn't help you in this situation. And yes, a behavioral approach is effective regardless of brain chemistry.

3) Should I drop out of his life if he is unwilling to explore anger management generally or if he refuses to engage with me in sharing and listening to one another about how we are experiencing these bouts of anger?

No, you don't need to drop out of his life, but it would be good to "find a distance from which you can easily love him." Meaning, arrange your time with him so that you minimize your availability to be a target of his anger.

4) How do you suggest I manage my own feelings of victimization? I know I can't fix this by myself, and I have a counselor I talk to regularly, although her forte is not anger-management or brain chemistry. How do I effectively express care for him, and also for myself?

I think you'll find answers for this question, and others you are asking, on this page: setting personal boundaries

Focus on creating the most joyful life for yourself that you possibly can, and engage with your son only at those times when he is contributing to your joy. That way you can be at your very best when you're with him, which is the greatest gift you can give him and yourself. You can do this, Sam. Believe in yourself and the goodness in your son.

My very best to you,

Dr. DeFoore

P.S. If you found this to be helpful, please consider making a donation to this site to support our mission to help you become your own best anger management resource.

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