Teenagers may learn that by threatening, intimidating, and behaving in an abusive manner, they will effectively frighten a mother or father into doing what they want (e.g., giving in or allowing them to have their way). One teenager stated, “I know how to get out of being grounded. I just start knocking stuff off the shelves, and my mother tells me to get out of the house.”
Abusing the parent may also give a teenager (who’s feeling powerless) a sense of control. It should be noted that teenagers who threaten physical violence, push or hit their parents, or destroy property (as part of an overall pattern of violating the rights of others) have moved beyond typical teenage rebellion and into oppositional defiance and/or conduct disorder.
Moms and dads struggling with their teen’s abuse are often confused and belittled. It can be hard to discover ways to keep everyone safe, including the teenager whose behavior is posing the risk to positive family relationships and safety. It can be difficult to know how to make things better. You are not alone! Here are some stats:
- 9% of all family violence incidents recorded by police involve parents/step parents who report violence by a child/stepchild ages 12-24 years.
- Teen violence exists across all communities, social classes, cultural backgrounds and geographic areas.
- Teen violence is not just against parents. Many teenagers are also violent to their siblings.
- Teen violence often becomes a major problem between the ages of 12 and 17 years.
- Mothers are more likely to be abused than fathers.
- It is estimated that approximately 70% of perpetrators are male and 30% are female.
Listen to your own warning bells. You know when things are not right, so go with your own feelings and thoughts. You may have experienced teen violence if:
- you are ‘walking on eggshells’ trying to predict your teenager’s wants and needs
- you feel afraid of upsetting your teenager, and you change your behavior to avoid it
- your teenager blames you for his/her behavior
- your teenager constantly criticizes you and puts you down
- your teenager pushes, hits, punches or hurts you or his/her siblings, throws things or damages your possessions or those of other family members
- your teenager ridicules or tries to humiliate or embarrass you, your family or friends
- your teenager threatens to hurt you, themselves or others (e.g., children, family, friends, pets) if you do not meet his/her demands
- your teenager threatens you that he/she will leave home if you do not do what they want
Things to remember about violent behavior:
- All violence is inappropriate, and physical violence and property damage are criminal offenses.
- It won’t go away! Violence generally worsens over time.
- Teenagers may apologize after the violence, giving you a false sense of hope that things may improve. They usually need more help to change.
- The teenager will not be able to stop their violent behavior on their own. With support from others, you can help to facilitate the change.
- The violence is never an acceptable or healthy way for the teenager to solve problems in their life, their family or community.
- Violence may not happen all the time. It may occur in cycles or as isolated incidents.
- Violent behavior is the responsibility of the teenager. You did not cause the teenager to be violent.
- You are not responsible for your teenagers’ behavior.
- You don’t have to know why things are happening to enable change to happen. Even a small change may feel like an improvement in the situation.
- You may find it is difficult to deal with a violent teenager, as you are the provider and supporter for many of their needs.
- You may not want to report violent behavior to the police because you are concerned for your teenager’s future.
If you are suffering abuse at the hands of your teenage son or daughter, here are some tips:
1. Get your teen acquainted with anger. Anger is a normal reaction to frustrating circumstances. Teenagers need to understand that it's okay to feel this emotion, but it's not okay to punch a hole through a wall because of it. Moms and dads can try to sit down and talk with their teenagers (when everyone is calm) and help them recognize what kinds of situations trigger their aggression. Once they recognize the physical responses they have when they are getting angry, or when they've identified the kinds of situations that often gets them in trouble, they can better anticipate and avoid reacting negatively. Teach your teenagers techniques on how to diffuse their anger, or teach them to walk away before the situation escalates.
2. Make an honest self-assessment. Studies show that teenagers are more likely to get violent if they are also exposed to violence in the family. It's not okay to respond to bad situations with aggression, whether you are in a position of authority at home or not. It's also important to reconsider keeping firearms at home. Research shows that guns kept at home are more likely to be used against a family member or friend than against intruders. Make an honest self-assessment on how you and the other grown-ups at home respond to frustration, especially if the teen's actions are the source of frustration.
3. Present a united front. Moms and dads and other care-givers can work together on solutions for managing the problem of parent abuse whether it is directed at one or both parties.
4. Rebuild an appropriate parent/child relationship. Help your teen understand what you expect. Consider the use of behavior contracts and family meetings. Remove privileges when necessary and spend time together doing things you both enjoy.
5. Remind yourself that you do have inner strength and wisdom. You might not feel like it now faced with what seems like such an insurmountable problem, but you do have strength. Marshaling that strength will help you do something. It might be learning more about parent abuse, interviewing therapists, finding a support group, etc. Just doing something can help you banish the feeling of powerlessness that often comes with parent abuse.
6. Solve problems with teenagers. Moms and dads, especially those who are “overprotective,” tend to make the mistake of fixing everything for their teens. While the intention may be good, the truth is that it doesn't help teenagers develop problem-solving skills. It helps when moms and dads sit down with teenagers and problem-solve with them. Involve them in recognizing the problem, facing it squarely, and thinking about solutions and possible consequences. If the problem involves them, then it's best to make sure that they're involved in the solution as well.
7. Team up. Moms and dads must understand that they can't be with their teenagers at all times. Teenagers will never flourish and grow up to be well-adjusted citizens with their moms and dads constantly looking over their shoulders. When dealing with abusive teenagers, there are dangers that need to be addressed, and parents will not always be there to help their teenagers make the right decisions. For example, teenagers will not always listen to their mother or father about staying away from gangs and their guns. Guns are, in the eyes of teenagers, symbols of power. Teaming up with other parents, teachers, counselors, community workers and neighbors may be a more efficient way of keeping an eye on your teenagers and exposing them to positive peer influences. In a sense, it's like casting a wider net with the help of concerned and trustworthy grown-ups.
8. Think safety. Making a safety plan and calling the police, if necessary, does not mean you don’t love your teenager. We all want to protect our kids, but that protection can’t be traded against personal safety. Everyone has a right to physically and emotionally safe.
9. Understand that turning the problem around will take time. As you experiment with different resources, allow time to determine if what you are trying is really for you. If not, why not? For example, what kind of therapist do you think would work best with your family? Is it someone that values a collaborative approach? Someone that has more traditional positions on family roles and responsibilities? It is important to look for a good fit that feels comfortable.
10. You are not alone. Again, although the problem isn’t often talked about, it does exist – and it is increasingly common. Blaming is not the answer or even a useful response to the problem.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Abusive Teens