How do I talk to someone who loses their temper?

I get this question a lot: “I know someone who loses their temper (my wife / my husband / my mom). How can I talk to them about it?”

Here’s the easy answer: You start somewhere, anywhere.

Here’s the hard answer: If they’re a part of your life and you’ve never talked with them about their anger habit, you’ve kind of enabled them — you support the habit.

Perhaps you’ve been scared or sad, or maybe you didn’t know you could do anything about it. Or maybe you’ve been happy with how things have been (and maybe they’ve been that way for a long time).

But now, if you’re asking me this question, it isn’t working for you anymore. You’re ready for a change.

Here’s the challenge (and the opportunity!): You can’t change someone else. You can only change yourself.

So you can’t change the person who loses their temper.

But you can change your reaction to it. Talk to them. Tell them how it makes you feel when they lose their temper. Do something different than you’ve done in the past. Here are a few ideas:

> When everyone’s calm, talk about it, “Honey, when you yell, it scares me and the kids. I wonder if there’s a different way we can get the kids to listen?”

> When everyone’s calm, talk about how you’ve decided to get help, “Honey, I’m having some trouble and I need some extra support, so I’m going to see a counselor.” If you feel comfortable, you could tell them you’re having trouble coping with the times when they lose their temper. Or you could simply tell them you’re feeling sad and want to talk to a professional. If you grew up in a family where getting help was not normal, you might experience some resistance to the idea, but push through and do it anyway. It’ll be worth it.

> Yelling is ok when someone’s in danger. Otherwise, it’s not necessary. If they’re yelling, try to stay calm and imagine they’re on an emotional train ride. You’re not on their train. Ask them to take a break, or take a break yourself.

> If they’re yelling, they’re stressed-out. A stressed-out person has difficulty with rational conversation. So if you decide to talk, try not to use too many words. Sometimes it helps to talk about feelings. Two simple phrases you could try are “I’m feeling _____ because ______.” (“I’m feeling scared because you’re yelling.”) Or, “You’re feeling _____ because ______.” (You’re feeling angry because the kids aren’t listening.”)

> It’s not your job to fix them or to fix the situation. If they’re yelling, it’s not your responsibility (or the kids’ responsibility) to make them feel better. Your responsibility is to keep yourself calm and make sure everyone’s safe.

> Have compassion. You’re all doing the best you can. And, hurtful behavior is not ok. Try to be loving through it all and set boundaries around hurtfulness.

Think about getting help from a life coach or counselor (I can coach you with practical strategies, and I have a list of referrals for counselors too). The person who loses their temper might not be interested in change, but if you’re ready for a change, getting help for yourself can make a difference.

You can make a difference because you’re close to that person. And when one person changes in a relationship, the other person can’t help but change over time.

Hot tempers tend to run in families. If you’ve got the habit too and you’re working on ending it, the work you’re doing will have ripple effects in your relationships.

I used to lose my temper with my family. My dear husband never said anything. It was part of our routine. Now when one of us loses it, we talk about it. We take breaks. We apologize. We know it’s hurtful and we choose to put boundaries around hurtfulness.

(If you have a child who loses their temper, click here.)

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