When you’re standing in your kitchen, and you’re fighting back tears and rage as your son is calling you “b---h,” you don’t have time to do much of anything but react. But when he’s stormed out the door or up to his room, the question arises in your mind yet again: “Why is he like this? Why does he talk to me this way?”
Verbal abuse and intimidation by children and teens isn’t just a phase that goes away; it doesn’t “just happen.” It often has deep roots that begin very early in a child’s development. In this article, I’m going to show you how your child’s abusive behavior may have evolved. Then next week, I’ll show you what you can do to stop it.
It should be noted that there are times when kids can get very mouthy as a reaction to stress, chaos or even as part of the developmental stage they’re going through. They can become testy in their answers to you, and their tone may become defiant or condescending. But abusive children cross a line when they start attacking people verbally, demeaning others, or threatening to harm themselves—or someone else. The verbalization of threats, name-calling and intimidation gives them power. Those are the kids we’re focusing on in this article, and usually they cross the line at a very early age.
Power: The Prime Motivator
Why do kids threaten and verbally abuse their parents? One reason is that when these children feel powerless, they lash out in an attempt to gain more control. Another reason is that they don’t have the problem-solving skills necessary to deal with frustration, to deal with disappointment or to resolve conflicts in a more appropriate manner. Children may fail to develop social problem-solving skills for a variety of reasons, which include diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities, family chaos, or individual temperament. Consequently, these kids often become overwhelmed by the emotions they’re experiencing as a result of their inability to solve social problems appropriately. If they don’t have the tools to deal with these uncomfortable feelings, they resort to name-calling, threats and verbal abuse of those around them.
It is my firm belief that kids also threaten their parents because in our culture today, power has become the solution for the problems people face. That message comes at children from every conceivable source. Movies, music, video games, politics and pro sports glorify aggression and the use of power to get your way. Preteens and adolescents are the most vulnerable to cultural messages, and the message they are getting says that if you’re weak, if you’re alone, you lose. Don’t kid yourself; this is not wasted on our youth. From a very early age, kids are taught that fighting for power and control will solve their problems. And as they get older, that fight becomes a lot more intense.
Now let’s say you have a child who, for whatever reason, has poor problem-solving skills. He sees the message of power around him on T.V., in his community and in his culture. He then learns how to use power in the form of threats and verbal abuse to replace his lack of problem-solving abilities. Instead of having to deal with his emotions and overcome whatever given obstacle is in his path, that child uses acting-out behavior, aggressive behavior and abusive behavior so that somebody else has to solve his problems for him. In effect, using this acting out, aggressive or abusive behavior becomes his problem-solving skill. This is a very dangerous pattern for a child to develop.
How Defiance Develops in Your Child
When we raise our children, we are teaching them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether we think they’re learning from us or not. Children watch adults for a living. What parents don’t always understand is that chronic defiance in children develops over time, after certain lessons are learned and it can start very early on.
Let’s take the case of a child who was a fairly normal baby. He’s achieved all the developmental milestones, was perhaps a little cranky at times, but generally, behaved age-appropriately. As he gets a little older, he starts having more problems. At about the age of five, he begins to balk at the idea of picking up after himself, whether it’s his dirty clothes going into the hamper or toys with which he’s been playing. If he’s told to clean things in his room, he goes to the living room instead of complying. When asked to finish the task at hand, he says, “I don’t want to,” and that becomes his battle cry. His parents have to stand over him to get anything done. As he gets older, he starts to challenge and justify, his voice gets louder and his tone gets rougher. He gets stuck in the loop of saying, “I don’t want to. I don’t have to. I’ll do it later. Why do I have to do it now?” When pushed, he will do things grudgingly, but only when adults are watching him. And as soon as they leave the room, his compliance stops.
Some parents will respond to this behavior by lowering their expectations. They place less responsibility on their child to pick up after himself. They wind up picking up his dirty clothes every day and picking up his books and toys, rather than dealing with his resistance, excuses and thinking errors. They think it’s easier and keeps the peace if they just to “do it themselves.”
For the parents, this can seem like a really good way to cut down on the fighting. After all, it only takes them 30 seconds to put the books away and pick up their child’s laundry. By the way, that’s a very common response and in some cases, it works out fine. But there are certain children who see that their parents have changed their rules and expectations because they fear their child’s resistance and acting out.
These are the children for whom capitulation on the part of the parents becomes a lesson. The lesson is, “If I throw a tantrum and scream at my mother and father, I’m going to get my way.” For these children, what tends to happen is that they start throwing more tantrums, yelling more frequently and using these inappropriate behaviors to solve their social problems.
Very early in life, children have to learn to deal with the word “no.” They have to learn the feelings of frustration or anger that are triggered when they hear it. In that way, being told “no” is a social problem that they have to solve. Most children develop the social skills of managing the feelings that are triggered when they’re denied something. But when the children I’m talking about are told “no” in a department store, their behavior escalates until they’re tantruming. And what tends to happen over time is that parents read the signals: they see that the behavior is escalating, and they try to do something about it before the tantrum begins. In other words, as the child gives them cues that he’s going to soon lose control if they keep placing the same demands on him, they lessen their demands. That lowering of expectations usually occurs by over-negotiating, compromising, or giving in to their child’s demands. In this way, these kids learn to shape the behavior of the adults around them. Make no bones about it, when parents change their routine because a child throws a tantrum, or verbally abuses them, they’re teaching that child that he can have power over them through inappropriate behavior. And once again, it’s not a lesson lost on that child.
While that’s going on, there’s a parallel process in which the parents are learning, as well. That lesson is, “If the child is given into, he stops tantruming and stops acting out.” For most parents, stopping the acting out is important because its embarrassing and frustrating. And so the parents are taught by the child that if they do what he wants, things will get easier, and if they don’t hold him accountable, even at 24 months, he’ll stop yelling and having temper tantrums. Parents learn to tolerate more inappropriate, acting-out behavior from the child. I call it “Parents raising their tolerance for deviance.” And those two processes, separate though parallel, build on each other and form the child’s way of dealing with life.
Of course, as the child gets older, tantrums take on a very different look. Since lying on the floor and screaming and kicking your feet makes kids feel embarrassed when they reach a certain age, they learn various forms of verbal abuse, including name-calling, putting others down, and threatening. They enter kindergarten and try to throw tantrums or fight with their teachers, and then wonder why they aren’t allowed to get away with things in school. Many times, they have problems getting along with other kids. When you think about it, the sandbox is a very commonsense place. If your child is in the sandbox with other kids and he’s yelling at them and calling them names or threatening to hurt them, they won’t play with him anymore—that’s all there is to it. And if your child is using inappropriate behavior as a way to get his way, the other kids are going to avoid him. If they have no choice but to accommodate him, once again he will fail to develop appropriate social skills. The lesson that he can get his way by verbally abusing others is reinforced.
So the intimidation between that child and his parents, and between that child and his peers, can start pretty early. Remember that there might be any number of reasons why a child is acting out and unable to handle the difficulties life presents: he might not learn to solve problems effectively because he has a neurological impairment like ADHD, an undiagnosed learning disability, a chaotic family life, or just a personal tendency to be oppositional. The acting-out child then enters adolescence and is a teen whose only problem-solving skills are to talk back abusively, put others down and curse at them, threaten to break things, or even use physical violence. One of the theories of The Total Transformation Program is that it doesn’t really matter what prevents your child from learning how to solve problems—rather, it’s his inability to do this that leads to the inappropriate behavior. This includes the use of power thrusts like verbal abuse, physical intimidation and assault.
The truth is, it’s a core part of our job as parents to teach our children problem-solving skills and to show them that tantrums, screaming, yelling and name-calling, verbal abuse and intimidation will not solve their problems. The reason why we need to step in and help them change their ineffective way of dealing with life’s problems is because the more we give power to inappropriate, verbally abusive, behavior the less prepared that child is going to be to solve life’s problems as an adult. Make no mistake about it, children who use verbal abuse, name-calling, cursing and intimidation, become verbally abusive adults.
Empowering Parents is a weekly newsletter, online magazine and parenting blog published by Legacy Publishing Company. Our goal is to empower people who parent by providing useful problem-solving techniques to parents and children. The views expressed in the articles on Empowering Parents represent the opinions of the authors and the experts quoted therein. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for us to respond to every question posted after an article on our website. Empowering Parents encourages its readers to participate by weighing in with suggestions and advice. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com
James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled teens and defiant children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University.