Always Angry: Lessons Learned from Hal Runkel’s ScreamFree Parenting

In Marvel’s 2012 movie The Avengers, one of my favorite scenes is when the Chitauri, a race of extraterrestrial shape shifters, invade New York. It’s in this scene when we, the audience, get to see the Avengers assemble for the first time on the big screen— a very cool moment for an old comic book nerd like me. As the Avengers are attempting to fight off the invasion, one of the Chitauri Leviathans (a giant, flying whale-like creature), is lead by Iron Man right into the arms of the waiting Avengers, and specifically the arms of the Hulk, for defeat. The scene goes like this: 

[Enter the flying Chitauri Leviathan]

CAPTAIN AMERICA: “Stark, we got him.” 

IRON MAN: “Banner?” 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: “Just like you said.” 

IRON MAN: “Then tell him to suit up. I’m bringing the party [aka the Chutauri Leviathan] to you.”

[Iron Man aggressively flies ‘round the corner of a building; the Leviathan aggressively flies through the same building, destroying it.]

BLACK WIDOW: [In a serious tone] “I don’t see how that’s a party.”

[The Leviathan quickly approaches, smashing cars and all that’s in its way.]

CAPTAIN AMERICA: [Anxiously] “Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry!” 

BRUCE BANNER/ THE HULK: [Cooly steps in the direction of the flying Leviathan] “That’s my secret, Captain…I’m always angry.” 

[Bruce Banner immediately transforms into the Hulk, smashes the Leviathan with one mighty blow, gives a powerful, primal scream, and ushers in the iconic circling-camera motion, showing the world the Avengers assembled, victorious, for the first time on camera—all the while the crescendo of a triumphant musical score punctuates the moment.]

I like this scene so much because the Hulk’s heroic outburst is exactly the delusion of grandeur I slip into any time I get angry. It’s powerful, primal, and triumphant. After all, my secret isn’t that different than Bruce Banner’s: I’m always angry, too, especially now that I have two kids— one, a toddler that says, “daddy” upwards of six hundred times a day; and another, an infant with an absolute maddening case of colic. The “I’m always angry” scene in The Avengers movie is epic; the “I’m always angry” scenes of my life, however, are not. In fact, they’re usually quite the opposite. 

Before I continue, allow me to clarify something. When I say, “I am always angry,” there are two very serious matters that I am most definitely not talking about: 1) physical abuse, and 2) depression. First, I have never hit a woman or a child in anger, nor would I, regardless of any momentary irritation. I witnessed my own mother being abused when I was a kid, so a legacy of physical dominance, pain, and/or abuse is one I’d never pass on to my family. I know all too well the irreversible damage it does. Secondly, this is not a veiled cry for help through some thick fog of depression. I’m generally a happy person. More importantly, I am generally a contented person. Happiness comes and goes, but contentment is like an anchor for the soul, and fortunately I have a good portion of both happiness and contentment. My “always angry” premise, then, is not a case for worry. This is simply my process of edification and catharsis through writing. 

Back to being angry. It doesn’t take much to bring me to full froth. That’s because I hold no qualms about letting others know they irritate me or piss me off. Holding my tongue always felt like trying to choke down some poison, so I always figured, why not spit it out? The real problem, however, is that there are a lot of people and things that piss me off. I have little patience for bigots, people who whole-heartedly subscribe to baseless conspiracy theories, those who complain about situations but do nothing to change them, people who smile at you one moment while slandering you the next, fickle people, spineless people, laziness, indecision, self-loathing, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy. And while most probably agree that those aforementioned types are a scourge on society, there are types that offend far less that still irritate me to no end. Miscreants are merely at the tip of my irritation iceberg. I also hold a double-dose of distain for the following: 

  • Those complainers who misinterpret first-world, candy-coated problems (e.g. slow Wifi and long lines at grocery stores) as real-word problems (e.g. abject poverty and homelessness). 
  • Those who dispense advice when it wasn’t solicited, especially when they’re clearly out of their league. 
  • Those who offer solutions for the world’s problems all the while failing to find solutions for the problems in their own homes. 
  • People who take their jobs, their politics, and themselves too seriously. 
  • Stupid questions (and as an educator, I can tell you they do exist). 
  • Neglectful animal owners who let their dogs bark ad nauseam. 
  • People who make excuses instead of taking responsibility. 
  • Loud cellphone talkers. 
  • Cigarette flickers. 
  • And especially those who tell me which words I should or shouldn’t say because it may offend someone else (the social hall-monitors of the world). 

Believe me, I could go on. I know this all sounds angry and maybe even a little judgmental, but that’s the hand I have been dealt. I didn’t choose to have those people or things irritate me; they just do— and when you throw two small children and a year-long pandemic + quarantine into the mix, it’s a vexing recipe for always being a little angry. I also recognize it isn’t the healthiest way to be. I can’t count the times some pop-psychologist has tried to prescribe me a cure: “You shouldn’t let those things get to you,” or “You gotta learn to let it go,” or “You have to take the good with the bad.” I hate pop-psychology. Real psychology has a hard enough time dealing with the angry, green monster that lives in all of us. Inspirational quotes and overly-positive people (who also irk me) just won’t work. That’s why, if I am honest, I am always on the look out for something that speaks to real irritation, real parenting, and real life, and recently I found a little something that did just that. 

A few weeks back, the bibliophile in me walked into the Sundance Bookstore in midtown Reno. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular; I was just looking. A certain book, however, caught my eye: ScreamFree Parenting: How to Raise Amazing Adults by Learning to Pause More and React Less. It’s by Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and best-selling author, Hal Runkel. I’m not really a screamer, but I will unreservedly raise my voice. Usually to the volume and voice of a ticked-off teacher, instructing you to either get away or get busy fixing things, and it can be rather scathing. That’s why the title, ScreamFree Parenting, was like another voice, a much calmer one, speaking to my general disposition, saying, “you may seriously want to consider this.”

I’m not much of a self-help-book sort-of guy either; they often feel like little ink versions of snake oil salesmen, promising a “cure-all” for “one low price” (yet another annoyance of mine). Runkel’s book, while not a self-help book per-se, is a parenting book, and that’s its own unique species of self-help. I know it certainly felt like a self-help book when I originally bought it— like I had a serious problem I was reluctantly confessing to the clerk when I slid the book across the cash-wrap counter. Once I settled down into the secret corners of my house, however, and started reading, I learned it wasn’t so much a problem I was dealing with, it was a pattern. That pattern has existed my entire life. When I get nervous, anxious, scared, or feel inadequate, I don’t recoil; I attack— and usually in frustration or anger. It’s very animalistic and very typical of my sex. Maybe it’s in our genes; maybe it’s in our heads (you know the old debate: nature versus nurture). Regardless, I don’t want problems or animalistic patterns in my parenting, or life in general. I want my actions and states of being guided by principles. I learned this, or at least was reminded of it, by Runkel when he wrote, “…becoming a ScreamFree parent is about learning to operate out of respect for your highest principles, not in reaction to your deepest fears” (107). That’s why this book was so helpful, and why I am writing a recommendation of it here. It made the focus of parenting the parent, not the child, as many parenting books do. The whole notion of ScreamFree parenting is, as Runkel makes clear, “…not a problem-solving or behavioral modification mindset for the kids; it is a growth mindset for us parents” (213). And in a culture steeped in social media posturing, emotional sensationalism, and pendulum parenting, a growth mindset for “us parents” is vital. 

My general irritation with the world certainly spills into my parenting. My son is a very well-mannered boy, and I’m not saying that out of bias. I’ve been around a lot of kids in both my personal and professional life, and he’s about as easygoing as a 3-year old gets. But when he absolutely refused to poop anywhere but his bedroom, I was boiling beneath the surface. Or now that my 2-month old daughter has a full-blown case of colic, she’s like a little She-Hulk, pissed off at everything. If you don’t hold her, she screams; if you don’t rock or bounce her while you hold her, she screams; and for literally no reason at all, she screams. It’s all so primal, powerful, and painful. I get the feeling God, the universe, or karma is balancing accounts, so to speak, returning my lifetime of slow-drip anger in a furious, little distilled version that carries my last name. And it goes without saying, Natalie (my wife) and I can’t out-scream Presley (our 2-month-old daughter). That would be a war no one would win. Chapter Two: “If You’re Not Under Control, Then You Cannot Be in Charge” of ScreamFree Parenting spoke directly to this. In fact, Runkel even challenges the war-time language that I (intentionally here) and other parents (unintentionally elsewhere) so often use to describe the parent-child relationship: 

“Children can draw us parents into interactions that become Us (the children) versus Them (authority figures), not Us against the realistic and logical consequences of rules. Us against Them becomes a war. ‘Getting tougher’ can win battles, but it may also teach that winning is the most important goal and that force and power are the ways to win. Children then learn that, with enough power, they can also win and that is how the world operates. If they feel they are losing, they simply apply more power” (46). 

This explains, to a large extent, why I’m always angry, and why I will “apply more power” to any person, situation, and/or environment where I feel like I am not winning. I internalized this lesson a long time ago. From where or from whom, I don’t really know, but it’s there. What I have also learned, the hard way, is something else that Runkel says, “This battle can seem endless, and that’s because it is. There are no victors in relationship battles, only casualties” (46). Of course, Runkel is speaking about the “battle” and “relationships” between parents and children, and I get that; but if you haven’t already noticed, I was interpreting the “battles” and “relationships” as being much larger than that. They’re the ones I have with the rest of the world. This level of interpretation was thought-provoking for me because the way I “battle” the world is, more of than not, the way I am going to “battle” my kids— by trying to apply more power, but this inevitably leads to “causalities.” I certainly don’t want that. Thus, I’ve been focusing on calming my emotional reactivity because I can’t have a positive influence on my kids if I don’t first have one on myself. It’s tempting to “Hulk-up,” so to speak, on complainers, excuse-makers, and even my own kids, but being reactive is so often an exercise in being regressive. In other words, Hulking-up on emotional reactivity usually results not in the defeat of my Leviathans (like in The Avengers) but in their growth and development. 

Another chapter that spoke directly to my crouching tiger, hidden Hulk was Chapter Six: “Resistance Is Futile; Practice Judo Parenting.” That’s because Runkel directly addresses what all parents quickly learn: “…your child is testing you…(119).” I hate tests. Usually because I don’t do well. And when another person wants to test me (even my own kids), well, I’ve already made it clear, I don’t recoil; I attack. Of course, I know I can’t attack my kids. What benefit is there in that? None. So Runkel offers parents like me an alternative once a toddler-initiated test begins, and it finds its origin in an unexpected place: judo. 

“In conflict, a student of judo is still engaged with the opponent, choosing to remain connected. But the participants is not going to attack the other or accept the invitation to fight. The judo participant is, instead, going to accept the other’s momentum as belonging to the other, something not to be resisted. Instead, it is going to be respected….the principle is to evade the opponent’s strength by changing one’s position to reduce the effect of the strength applied” (121-2). 

What this means in terms of my parenting is this: when my 3-year old, Jameson, wants to scream until he’s red in the face, I don’t reply in kind. I don’t “accept the invitation to fight,” even though it is so very tempting to do so— because that boy knows I can out-roar his Hulk with mine. Nonetheless, not accepting this invitation to fight is incredibly difficult, especially under the mindset that I’ve held for years; that being, if you irk me, I’ll let you know. The shift in my thinking and actions came, however, when I realized that Jameson’s tendency to test me wasn’t because he was being disrespectful, rude, a “boy being a boy,” or simply “being a toddler”— all things I have heard and/or told myself. Jameson is testing me, as Runkel says, “…so that he can see that [I am] dependable, stable, and consistent” (120). He’s testing the waters of trust, not my temper or temperament. Once I realized that, I stopped having the desire to smash his emotional Leviathan with my emotional Hulk; instead, it made me want to pull him close, like a judo participant, to “accept the other’s momentum,” because I want him to know he can trust me. Now, when I am faced with Jameson’s tests, I’m more inclined to think, “how can I prove my dependability, stability, and consistency here?” It’s still a work in process, especially since there’s a colicky 2-month-old screaming in the background, but this process works so much better than trying to fight his fire with mine. 

I took many valuable lessons from Runkel’s book, and I’d like to convey just one more. I have always valued self-direction, self-reliance, and self-assurance. I see them as some of the only sure ways to be successful in life, especially since no one else is going to assure your own success like your self. Thus, it’s something I truly want for my kids. The hard part here is that self-direction, self-reliance, and self-assurance are great for adults, but they are so difficult for the adults of kids. Meaning, my 3-year-old (who is clearly going on 9-years-old) already has a lion’s share of these self-values, and allowing him the freedom to disagree and disengage is, more often than not, displeasing for me. Runkel, however, gives some great advice on this, too: 

“…the entire goal of parenting is to launch our children into the world as self-directed adults. We want them to be capable of asserting their desires, making their own choices, and taking responsibility for their actions. We want them to be able to stand up for themselves and choose for themselves what they will and will not do. We just don’t like it when they practice demonstrating that on us” (127). 

And how right he is! I want very much for my kids to stand strongly, even Hulk-like if necessary, in the face of the world. I just don’t want them to do it to me. The truth is, however, they will need to do exactly that if they are to be fully prepared for the world. As a result, I need to “not stifle [my] children’s expressions of will, desire, and emotion. [My] goal is to help steer those expressions along the most productive paths” (127). It’s from Runkel’s book, then, that I have learned that one of the best ways to properly “steer those expressions” are by properly steering my own expressions first. It is as author Wilfred A. Peterson once said, “Our children are watching us live, and what we are shouts louder than anything we can say.” It’s natural to expect, then, my kids will steer their emotions properly only when they see I can properly steer mine. 

Allow me here in the end to return to the beginning. One of the other great things about that scene in The Avengers, the one where the Hulk heroically smashes the Leviathan, is that we see for the first time that the Hulk is not the raging, unruly beast that his reputation suggests. Quite the contrary. Here’s a snippet of that scene again: 

[The Leviathan quickly approaches, smashing cars and all that’s in its way.]

CAPTAIN AMERICA: [Anxiously] “Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry!” 

BRUCE BANNER/ THE HULK: [Cooly steps in the direction of the flying Leviathan] “That’s my secret, Captain…I’m always angry.” 

[Bruce Banner immediately transforms into the Hulk and smashes the Leviathan with one mighty blow.] 

Bruce Banner cooly stepped in the direction of this opponent, like a judo master, and chose to destroy it with much of its own momentum. Thus, Banner could have said to Captain America, “That’s my secret, Captain…I’m always [in control].” Banner didn’t Hulk-up because he lost control; he Hulked-up because he was in control. The point is, anger can be a useful tool—when it’s used with purpose and planning. Or as film director Ang Lee, who ironically enough directed the 2003 Hulk film, once said: “Sometimes, you have to get angry to get things done.” I find this to be true. After all, it’s how you get your neighbor’s dog to shut up. Thus, it’s a tool I like to keep in my toolbox, just not my parenting toolbox; anger is the wrong tool for that job. Control through the anger, control in spite of the anger, and maybe even control because of the anger, they can help destroy Leviathans— and hopefully the one’s that live within me more so than the ones that live without. To do that, however, I still need my inner Hulk. I’m just trying to train him to be less of a scream-filled parent and be more of a ScreamFree parent. 

Lastly, and as a kind of addendum, I wanted to share the titles of each chapter of ScreamFree Parenting: How to Raise Amazing Adults by Learning to Pause More and React Less, especially since they give some sense of the knowledge contained therein. I also wanted to share one nugget of wisdom I highlighted from each chapter. That way, if you don’t have the time or desire to read all 312 pages, you can at least get what my composition students always crave: the summarized version. There was so much wonderful advice that ran the whole gamut of parenting, but here’s some of the most memorable. Granted, if you want to get the full weight of the lessons learned, you’ll just have to read the book yourself. 

  1. Chapter One: “Parenting is Not About Kids, It’s About Parents”: “The only way to retain a position of influence with our children is to regain a position of control over ourselves” (34). 
  2. Chapter Two: “If You’re Not Under Control, Then You Cannot Be in Charge:” “Your goal is not to control. Your goal is to influence” (45). 
  3. Chapter Three: “Growing Up Is Hard to Do, Especially for Grown-Ups:” “Whenever we give in to our anxious reactivity, we help create the very outcomes we’re hoping to avoid” (60). 
  4. Chapter Four: “We’re Not raising Kids: Parenting with the End in Mind:” “The more you focus on producing a particular result for your child, the less chance your child has of authentically choosing that result for herself. The more it becomes your goal, the less room she has to discover her own goal” (89). 
  5. Chapter Five: “Kids Need Their Room:” “Why not model now the respect we want them to exhibit later, respect for both themselves and for others” (101)? 
  6. Chapter Six: “Resistance Is Futile; Practice Judo Parenting:” “Now let’s ask ourselves a very tough question: Why should our children obey us? What in the world is their motivation? It it to please us? How long do you want that? Not very. What we want is for them to do it for themselves” (128). 
  7. Chapter Seven: “You Are Not a Prophet (and Neither is Grandma):” “What we do with any repeated label, no matter how positive, is eliminate our children’s freedom to be evolving, developing human beings; we diminish their ability to choose their behavior and instead also their label to choose it for them” (144). 
  8. Chapter Eight: “Parents Set the Table by Setting the Tone (and Visa Versa):” “If a behavior is getting replayed over and over again, it becomes very easy to focus on the other person, the one whose behavior you want to change. But here’s the trick— a pattern always involves more than one party. And if you’re experiencing a pattern with your child, guess what? Somehow you’re contributing to the ongoing behavior” (165). 
  9. Chapter Nine: “Let the Consequences Do the Screaming:” “What happens when they do stupid things or make stupid mistakes? We panic. We get reactive. We scream. And remember, regardless of the words coming out of our mouths, what we’re really screaming is Calm me down! I can’t handle what you’ve done, and I can’t handle the fact that now I’m going to have to clean up your mess” (188-9)! 
  10. Chapter Ten: “Empty Threats Are Really Broken Promises:” “Consistent enforcement of the consequences is the single most effective application of authority in the parent-child relationship—but only if you can think through your decisions calmly before you make them” (205). 
  11. Chapter Eleven: “Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First:” “Loving yourself first is the only true way to be ScreamFree, because it is the only way to seek your own calm first. It is the only way to truly benefit your kids without burdening them with the need to benefit you. It is not their job—not is it anyone else’s—to meet your emotional and physical needs” (223-4). 
  12. Chapter Twelve: “Revolutionary Relationships:” “You are not responsible for your kids, their behavior, their feelings, or any of their choices. You are, however, responsible to them for your behavior, your feelings, and all of your choices” (243). 
  13. Chapter Thirteen: “Parenting in the Digital Age:” “Failure occurs whenever we abandon what we want most for whatever it is we want right now” (249). 
  14. Chapter Fourteen: “Ten Years of ScreamFree Answers and Applications:” “Your job is not to control her [or his] behavior; your job is to manage your emotions so that she [or he] can learn to control her [or his] own behavior” (269). 

Happy parenting— but only after you’ve been angry parenting! 

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