In working with kids and parents, I have noticed that when the kid struggles, be it with peers, academically, or otherwise, he often takes it out on his parents. There is one fairly well accepted explanation for this tendency. Essentially, the idea is that a kid trusts his relationship with his parents. His parents are not going anywhere and they are not going to leave or abandon him just because he gets angry with them. It is safe to get angry with them, while with friends it may feel like more of a risk. After all, a friend can leave you more easily than family can if he doesn’t like how you are acting. [i]

While I agree with this position, I believe that there is another layer to the reason why a kid takes out his anger and frustration on his parents. To explain it, I must start with the infant. In an infant’s world, it is the parents’ job to make the infant happy, content, and fulfilled. Every need he has, the parent supplies the answer. Every discomfort, the parent adjusts. For a brief period, that is his world, being tended to by parents that he initially does not even perceive as separate individuals.

These early experiences leave us with a primitive memory[ii] of when our parents tended to our every need, and that was all we knew of them. An infant does not know that his parents have more to who they are than being his parents. An infant doesn’t even recognize that his parents have a relationship with each other that is independent of their relationship to him. Parents are simply “mom” and “dad” (or some such variants, depending on the family configuration). As he grows up, the child is slowly robbed of that illusion. He comes to see that his parents are actually people! He becomes aware that his parents have needs and agendas and interests independent of being parents. And this is truly a loss for the kid. He loses that sense of exclusivity, that sense that his parents are just there for him. As an infant and child, he felt as if he encompassed the dominant theme in the sphere of his parents’ lives. And to a large extent, he did. As he matures, he grows to realize that his parents are three-dimensional people with elements to who they are other than ‘just’ being his parents.

Parenting goes beyond a full time job. It becomes part of a person’s identity, for some it becomes the largest part of their lives. However, there is a difference between a role being a large part of one’s life and it being who they are. No matter how big or demanding the role, it does not represent the entirety of their personality. Even if the role takes up all of their time, it is still not who they are; although, they may start to forget that themselves. But, from a young child’s perspective, early on, it is who they are. They are Mom or Dad. In his early memories, the child feels as if his parents’ lives are occupied by the role of being a parent. (For younger siblings, they never fully have this, for they have to share even that with their older siblings.) The child cannot see beyond that identity. Anything else in the parents’ lives is secondary.

Most kids grow out of this view; some faster than others. As he grows, the kid becomes aware that his parents have other interests, roles, needs, and demands in their lives. Parents are not simply “mom” or “dad.” That is not who they are. They are Sally, or Bob, which means many things, only part of which is being a parent.

Some parents go to great lengths to make their children their highest priority. For such a child, this can be a wonderful foundation. He can gain a core sense of confidence and self-value that can help him navigate the cruelty and indifference of the world. The world will eventually teach him that he is not as special or important ‘out there’ as he is to his mom. However, this loss of priority is better than never having felt like a priority. It is better to give him a childhood that leaves him mourning the loss of feeling so special than a childhood that leaves him feeling devalued and needing to spend the rest of his life recovering by seeking approval and acceptance from others.

So, first, a kid can retain a primitive memory of when his parents tended to his every need, and the unconscious belief that this is still their job. So when the world frustrates a kid’s desires, when he encounters obstacles and upsets and setbacks, and there is no clear villain to be angry with, he may still have the ingrained memory of his parent, whose job it is to make him happy, content, and fulfilled. So if he is not happy, content, and fulfilled, it must be his parent’s fault… mom is not doing her job. So despite a lack of any logical connection between the event and his parent, this kid will instinctively resort to taking his anger out on that parent.

Second, a kid can have a primitive and nonverbal resentment towards his parents, often more so towards his mother, since that is the parent with whom most children typically feel that sense of exclusive priority (as primary parent). This resentment stems from a sense of abandonment. With the realization that his parents are not simply put on the earth to tend to him, the child begins to realize that he will have to cope with life on his own. He begins to see that it will be his job to protect himself, to soothe himself, to in some ways to ‘parent’ himself; and this is a harsh realization.


[i] According to Psychologist Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, kids take their anger out on parents “Because their mothers are their safest and most available targets. Because girls know that if they express anger at their teachers or especially at their peers, they will be shunned. But their mothers, who love them unconditionally, will not, for example, tell everyone else in the family, “she’s a loser, don’t let her sit at the dinner table!” …And so girls know that they can express anger towards their moms.” Cohen-Sandler, Roni. (2000). I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict with Roni Cohen-Sandler. As part of a WebMD Live Event. Retrieved August 6, 2007, from medicinenet Web site:

Displacement is a common defense mechanism, or means of coping with stress. It can be useful in situations where is it inconvenient or unsafe to express one’s anger directly with the source of that anger (for example, because that source is physically or socially threatening, such as a teacher or bully). So the child’s anger is expressed in other, safer relationships, called scapegoats, with less fear of consequence. Often this results in exaggerated reactions to minor events. Sometimes, displacement can also be a defense against recognizing the real source of anger. Tucker-Ladd, Clayton E. & the Self-Help Foundation. (1996-2006). Psychological Self-Help. Pp. 28 Retrieved August 7, 2007, from


[ii]Historically, it was thought that memories from infancy were lost due to “infantile amnesia.” Essentially this theory was that memories could not be formed during infancy. More recently, the accuracy of this belief has been questioned. There is considerable evidence that early experiences impact the development of the brain. Furthermore, studies have shown that pre-verbal babies can demonstrate functional memories. For example, A recent study showed that the same fundamental mechanisms that underlie memory processing in adults are present very early in infant development, instead of emerging hierarchically over the 1st year, as previously thought. The study found that even young infants were able to remember an event over the period previously thought to be subject to infantile amnesia if they are periodically exposed to appropriate nonverbal reminders. Rovee-Collier, Carolyn (1999). 
The Development of Infant Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science 8 (3), 80–85.

Another study found that infants form memories as well as adults, only they forget more easily than adults. They found that by age 8 months, most infants put together memories in the same way as adults. As they get older, the persistence of memories becomes progressively longer over the first 18 months. However, if an event is significant enough, then an infant is more likely to remember it longer. Infant Amnesia –Not anymore, says experts. (2007, February). Retrieved September 19, 2007 from Medindia Website:
However, if the brain is so strongly affected by what happens in these early days, why can’t we remember any of it? Typical explanations point to either a storage issue or a retrieval issue. However, a more recent explanation is that memory is not a single function, but that it is made up of several abilities controlled by a network of different brain systems. The major distinction is between conscious recollection of experience, called declarative memory (like remembering your first grade teacher), and unconscious memories of skills and habits, called non-declarative memory (like riding a bike). The unconscious memory system appears active and available from birth, while a conscious memory counterpart develops later. So we can remember experiences and skills on an unconscious level, but lack a conscious memory of them. Schaffhausen, Joanna. (2000). Gone but not forgotten? The mystery behind infant memories. Retrieved September 19, 2007 from Brain Connection Website:



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