Several times lately I have met with parents who are hurt and angered by the things their children have said in anger. It makes sense that they are hurt. These are parents of “quirky kids” who get set off easily. Once your child is angry, she stops using her pre-frontal cortex to exercise judgment about what she says. Parents report remarks like, “You’re the worst Mom ever.” “I know you hate me.” “Go ahead, kill me now.”

As children get older their insults might hit closer to home. When you remind her not to eat too much just before dinner, she might get angry and comment on your weight, or your love life. When the barbs are really personal, it sounds quite silly for a child psychologist to say, “Don’t take it personally.”

What can I be thinking when I recommend this? Have I never been on the receiving end of such insults? Actually, I have, and I admit that I did not always comport myself honorably in this situation. I speak with the experience of a child psychologist and a parent who has tried it both ways.

When I say, “Don’t take it personally,” I mean remember that you are dealing with someone who is still learning how to cope with disappointment, frustration, intense emotions, simple changes in routine, to name a few. Think of the insults as a poor strategy for working out differences. This might help you feel some distance when the insults fly.

If you can observe the situation with some distance, it is likely that you can respond in a way that is helpful to your child. When you take these remarks personally, you are likely to respond out of your own hurt emotion. Then you have two individuals who are not using their frontal cortices. This is a recipe for disaster.

Suppose that your own feeling thermometer is rising, and you know you don’t have the necessary distance to keep your cool. In that case, I recommend a time out for parents. I don’t mean a punishment, but a break to restore your cool. You can say, “I can’t talk to you now. I’ll get back to you.” When you have calmed down, it is likely that your child has also calmed down.

Say you are calm in the face of the storm, what do you do? It is not helpful for even a calm minded parent to try to reason with a child who is hurling threats and insults. You don’t have a reasonable person to work with at that point. Again you can say, “I can’t talk to you now. I’ll get back to you.” I realize that many children are very adept at continuing an argument, and walking away from someone who is provoking you can be very difficult. In addition, your child might follow you. More on this later.

When the dust has settled, you can get back to your child and try to work things out. When you try to work things out, address the issue that started the blow-up. This might surprise you. Why not address the foul language first? Here I am drawing on the wisdom of Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon in their book, Treating Explosive Kids. The idea is that if you can work out the triggering issue, you probably won’t have the blow-ups. You teach your child how to work out problems with you. The insults and the foul language are symptoms of your child’s undeveloped skills.

You certainly can also work out the fact that you do not want to be called names when you set a limit or change plans. You put your concern on the table and ask your child to put his on the table as well. But the explosive behavior is really only the surface noise of the problem.

Now a few words about some of the extreme things that children say in these situations. Some children will make threats about safety. They might say, “I just want to die,” or “If you do this to me I’ll run away.” You should be concerned when you hear this. Perhaps these are idle threats, but perhaps not. So, later when things are calm, ask in a concerned manner about whether your child really wants to die or really has plans to leave. If you are not working with a therapist, this would be a good time to engage one to help you assess your situation for safety.

A less concerning but very aggravating problem happens when you try to disengage from an argument and your child won’t let you. I encourage you to go to another room and even lock yourself in the bathroom if you need to. As long as you deem it safe, you could go outside. During this time before you child has regained composure, avoid re-entering the argument. Remind him a couple of times that you will talk when you are both calm. He might need some suggestions on how to calm down, but he is unlikely to want them at this point. This I another topic to discuss later.

So, when I say, “Don’t take it personally,” I mean, “Remember that you are dealing with someone who hasn’t developed good coping skills.” You can help your child learn ways to work out differences with others. The good news is that your child can learn these skills if you can maintain some distance and control.

Author's Bio: 

Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. (www.drcarolynstone.com) educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at http://www.drcarolynstone.com/blog/.