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My husband's bad temper is getting worse. What should I do?

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The question

My husband has always been short-tempered, but he has become increasingly angry over the past few months. He takes it out on our pre-teen children – he has never gotten physical and does not swear or get otherwise verbally abusive.

But he gets easily annoyed and frustrated, and will raise his voice and get upset with them to the point that they don't want to be around him. His responses are out of proportion to the situations.

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How can I help him see the damage he is causing?

The answer

Anger is a normal, healthy emotion that we all experience at times. Like any other emotion, anger exists on a continuum with varying degrees of severity. The range of emotions may include minor annoyance, irritation or frustration, all the way up to fury or rage. It is important to distinguish the emotional experience of anger (which can be appropriate in some circumstances) from the outward expression of anger (which is often inappropriate, and can lead to damaging, destructive or abusive situations).

Anger can serve a useful function in some situations: namely when we are in situations where we are being disrespected, threatened/attacked, or when our boundaries are being crossed. Anger can become unhealthy and problematic when it is mismatched to the severity of a situation, or when it is inappropriately expressed or negatively impacting others – like the situation you seem to be describing with your husband.

In these latter types of situations, anger often is a "secondary emotion" – meaning that it may be a sign of another underlying "primary emotion". Insecurity, fear/anxiety, and depression can often manifest as anger, particularly for men. Given that you have described a recent change in your husband's behaviour, it may be likely that his anger is reflective of some other emotional experience or stressor.

Given that your husband's behaviour is having a negative impact on your young children, you need to address this with him immediately.

You may want to start by having a general discussion about changes you've observed over recent months. Be specific and objective in describing the behaviour you have seen, and avoid making assumptions or laying blame (as this will likely just lead to him feeling defensive).

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Let him know that you want to work with him as a family to create a more supportive and caring environment for your children.

Describe the impact it's having on your children. Ask if he's noticed that things have felt different or 'off' recently, and if there are things that have been bothering him over recent months that you may be unaware of.

Take a problem-solving approach where you work with your husband to identify factors that may be contributing to his anger (and work on solving those). Also, try to agree upon some immediate strategies to minimize the impact of his mood on your children (e.g., ask him to go for a short walk to relax before he comes home from work and sees the family). You should remain unapologetic in your expression of behaviours that need to change.

Know that there are a range of effective strategies for managing anger, including: identifying trigger factors/situations (and working to reduce those); working to solve underlying issues (e.g., untreated depression or anxiety); learning and implementing relaxation strategies; reducing alcohol or other non-prescription substance use; changing thoughts/interpretations that lead to angry thoughts; and learning more effective/healthy communication styles (e.g., assertive, rather than aggressive communication styles).

Note: If there is ever any indication of emotional, verbal or physical abuse – toward you or children – it is important first and foremost to ensure safety of everyone involved. Remove yourself and your children from any potentially dangerous or threatening situation and call The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) for resources in your area.

There are a number of useful books on anger management that may be helpful for individuals that are dealing with anger problems, as well as for their loved ones to better understand anger patterns and triggers.

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"Beyond Anger: A Guide for Men" (by Thomas Harbin) takes a no-nonsense approach to anger in men. "Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames" (by Thich Nhat Hanh) takes a mindfulness/Buddhist approach to managing anger. The American Psychological Association also has a number of useful, free articles.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

Click here to see Q&As from all of our health experts.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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