My Father Has a Short Temper and it’s Getting Worse

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Reader’s Question

My dad is 65 years old and he has always been very short-tempered, but it’s getting worse now. He speaks badly about everyone, especially my eldest brother and his wife. He misbehaves with my mother although she has been with him for 40 years and done everything for him. It seems he doesn’t care at all and we are all under quite a stress. We don’t understand and don’t know how to handle him.

Psychologist’s Reply

Sometimes it happens in families that one person holds all the anger in the family, and everyone else a) feels unable to express anger themselves, and b) feels compelled to manage the person’s anger, reduce it, solve it, or tiptoe around it. I wonder if this has been the case in your family. You mentioned that your father has always been short-tempered, but that it has gotten worse. It does sound very stressful.

You did not mention how you handle him currently, or how your family has handled his temper in the past. Whatever the case, it sounds from your question as if you are feeling that you need to do something different. Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is a psychologist who has written several books about relationships and how to navigate within them. She characterizes a relationship as a “dance,ā€ meaning that when one person changes her step, it prompts a change in the partner as well. Lerner notes that often when people change how they relate to someone they have known for a long time, the initial reaction is negative (e.g. “change back!ā€). If you were to speak with your father about how his behavior is affecting you, he might initially react with even more anger, toward you or someone else. This is a risk you would be taking if you were to act in a way that is different from how you always have reacted to him.

Let’s say you’re ready to make a change. I cannot recommend the best way to communicate with him in particular, because I do not know the specifics of your relationship and communication patterns. Generally, though, when you are communicating about difficult things (e.g. how his anger has affected you), it is a good idea to stick to “Iā€ statements, speak for yourself, and focus on very specific behaviors. In your case, this might look something like, “Dad, I am having a hard time listening right now. It’s really difficult for me to hear you talk about my brother that way.ā€

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In relationships in which one person is unable or unwilling to change his or her behavior, the responsibility falls to the other person to decide how to proceed. The challenge is to find ways to take care of yourself despite your father’s behavior. That could mean putting some distance between you and him (e.g. less frequent visits). Or, that could mean visiting with him only when others are present, if that would reduce the likelihood that he would become angry or negative. Even more challenging is to find ways to connect with him, be humorous with him, or find compassion for him, despite his behavior. I am not sure if this is possible if you are feeling angry, hurt, fearful, or resentful toward him.

My suggestions are broad and general, but a family therapist who can gain some understanding of the family patterns, rules, and assumptions would be able to make specific recommendations to both you, your family members, and even and your father.

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