Kids Who are Verbally Abusive, Part 1: The Creation of a Defiant Child

by James Lehman, MSW
Kids Who are Verbally Abusive, Part 1: The Creation of a Defiant Child

Part one of a two-part series by James Lehman, MSW on kids who use verbal abuse, intimidation and threats to manipulate their parents and family. In this article, James explains how a defiant, verbally abusive child is created. Next week, he’ll tell you how to handle this behavior in your home.

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?”

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.

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.

Related: Is your child or teen verbally abusive toward you or others?

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.

Related: How to get through to your child without a fight.

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 that it 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.

Related: Does your child throw tantrums and yell in order to get his or her way?

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.

Related: ODD Child? Learn how to manage his/her behavior.

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.

Related: How to make this rule stick in your home: "There's no excuse for abuse."

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.

Next week, in part two of our series on kids who verbally abuse others to get their way, James explains what to do when your child threatens or intimidates you.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


This is a mirror image of what we are going through. Our 9 yr old (adhd)son (Jimmy) has a hard time getting along with other kids. Yesterday, he came home crying because his friend was teasing him and Jimmy was upset because he couldn't control his anger. He asked me how to help him and I told him I would get us some help. He asked me to take him to the "kids jail" so he could see how bad it is, so he would never want to go there in his life. I am concerned, well have been concerned since very young. We need answers. He is such a smart and fun child. We know we all get frustrated and yell when we reach that point, but we need help on that.

Comment By : fergusonvi


Comment By : Beth

I will be waiting on the edge of my seat for part two next weeks. I can say that this describes my 13 year old son to a tee, and also me. We need help and I'm hopfull that part two will put us on the right path.

Comment By : sh

This describes my 17 year old to a tee. Is it too late to do anything about this in a child of this age?

Comment By : mom

This makes too much sense for the common psychologist to grasp, in my opinion. Prior to getting TT, I took my then 15 year old son to a couple different counselors in an effort to help him stop being abusive and non compliant. Yes, there was a divorce and he was 15 wanting more independence,etc. But the way I saw it, he still needed to follow rules like no more then 2 hours of electronic entertainment per day, no swearing, be home on time and letting me know what he was doing when not home and not going to someone's house where there was no adult supervision. Well, the first counselor stated that I was a control freak for these expectations. My son of course ran with that notion. The second counselor really impressed my son because she just basically told me what rules he should have after telling me flatly "he's a good kid". Of course, she wasn't there when he spit in my face, broke windows and threw furniture around the room. She was not impressed by my decision to call the police in the midst of this chaos. So when I got this program, it helped me see that calling the police was exactly the right thing to do, even though I felt like a failure and faced losing him to social services. So my son had to decide if he wanted to live with me and follow the rules or go live in a foster home and follow their rules. Today, there's been much more water over the dam and I count TT as a blessing from God because the stuff you teach is biblical and common sense. Lisa

Comment By : Lisa

I thought th article was great. I have four children. I know they have their problems. But my fience also has four children and they have a whole new set of problems that I don't no how to deal with. They are very angry children. All but one is grow. He is the one I need to help. He stays angry at me because I don't give he everything he wants. Grandma lives right next door and he will run to her tell her that I am being mean and that I disresepct him. And she will go get him what I told him he could not have. Well, I did have a talk with her and we are working together to solve this problem. But now he has started stealing from her. He also has a bedwetting problem but it only happens here. I think it is another way to show his angry at me. His mom died when he was young and I have tried to let them know that I understand that I can't be her but that I can be here if they need me. I haven't told about they stealing yet because I almost know for sure he will cry to them that he did.n't do it and as usually I am telling another lie on him. But some kid on the the school bus saw him with over $300. Please tell me how to haldle this problem he is 13 now and only getting worst with his family's help.

Comment By : soon to stepmom

When my child confronts me like that, everything becomes my fault. I try, really try to control my anger. She then continues to escalate until I lose my temper. I have tried really hard to distance myself and to make myself go into another frame of mind, but she just continues until I lose my temper. This is especially difficult in the mornings when she procrastinates and does not do what I ask. I have even dreamed about losing my job because I am once again late because of her. I have even left her like you have suggested so now she is petrified that is what I am going to do so she runs after me even pounding on the door of the car. Please help me!

Comment By : Frustrated Mom

I have that problem at home with my 18 year old. he started doing that at age 14

Comment By : fonse1989

This is exactly what has happened with our 17 year old. He is ADHD and Deaf. You are exactly right, I see it now that I look back over the years. Can't wait to read your next article.

Comment By : Della

100% right. Wish someone had helped me with this years ago.

Comment By : survivor mom

I felt that this article was right on. As a single parent there is more one on one with your child. Now I understand want is going on at the teen stage. Looking forward for the next article.

Comment By : paralegal robin

I have been swimming around in my brain trying to figure out where I went wrong with my third child who is now 15 yo, yelling "I hate you" at us every time we give him a directive that he disagrees with. This article paints the picture clearly. I look forward to next week.....

Comment By : 62buttons

I thought this article had alot of helpful information for a child who acts in an aggression manner. What about a child who is not necessary abusive, but whenever I talk to my 13 year old son we tend to get into argument and he doesn't like to listen very well and likes to argue about everything. Besides this he is a nice kid, gets along with his friends and does well at school. I need some advise on how to handle this situation.

Comment By : peykarian

This is good stuff. As a former teacher, I'll look forward to next week's lesson.

Comment By : Doris

Oh thank goodness help is only a week away. Looking forward to part two. I only hope this will help with my 17 yr old.

Comment By : Mom

I purchased your program for my daughter, hoping to give her much needed support as she raises her 6 year old. I have read your article about the defiant child and want others to know that my youngest son is 24 years old and goes through episodes when he is very verbally abusive; so know that this behavior doesn't always go away when our kids grow up. Maybe if I had James program available as I was raising my children I could have corrected this problem early on, now I'm anticipating part 2 and hoping there may still be hope for my 24 year old.

Comment By : Too Late?

Our 15 year old son to a tee, counseling, prescriptions, doctors, nothing has helped. The other day my husband came home as our son was leaning over me and threatening me. I wanted to call the police, he talked me out of it. Please finish article.

Comment By : dcinnv

i have a 14 year old son that is completely defient, rebelious, and is constantly verbally abusing me. he has so much anger inside of him and always blames others for his mistakes and for being incapable of controling himself. my husband and i adopted our son from India when he was 2 years old and from the time that he was brought into our home, he has been showing signs of this type of behaviour. he is impulsive and if he doesn't have the money to buy something, and he wants it, he will just steal it right out of the store. he is a shop lifter at 14 years old! i am always on edge and afraid of what he might do next. he makes me nervous and uncomfortable with his manipulative behaviour. he has anxiety, screaming fits and says that no one loves him or accepts him for who he is! we cannot get him to realize that he just cannot go around treating people the way he does and still expect people to like him and want to me around him. he has a lot of mental and social problems and things just keep getting worse as he gets older. what are we suppose to do? how do we get him to listen to us and realize that he needs to change his terrible behaviour? another thing that we are worried about is that he is failing in school and doesn't even care. we, as parents, feel like he is abusing us verbally and mentally. i just don't know where it's all going to end!

Comment By : feeling abused and stressed out mom

I have two teen who are so verbally and have been physically abusive.It makes me cry at times. I know the one has poor problem solving skills, the other I just do not know why. When they were young they did not throuw alot of tantrums. it just all changed when they became teens and when they aere told no to social things not related to family. They are still charming to other family members. I can not wait for the next articules

Comment By : CJ

great article i'm raising my grandchild his mom is in another state & now has another child his stepdad left so he has a lot of reasons for his anger but he is not able to control his feelings unfortunatelly i'm the receiver of his anger. i'm put a strong front but when he is abusive to me it is very hard . he is in therapy i will also start he is doing better but he is at that age 11 years old .can't wait for the rest of the article. thanks

Comment By : nana

My son is ten years old with ADHD and he still throws tantrums. He gets mad and then answers back only when he is in trouble. Looking forward to the next article.

Comment By : Fl girl

Excellent! This describes my 17 yr.old too and what makes it worse is that we are a blended family. His dad is in his life but a very negative force, hence the divorce. The verbal abuse started with my ex-husband towards me. Our two boys have heard the negative way he is and are now at the ages of 11 and 17 hating it. I can understand that my son is going through changes dealing with high school to college and the many decisions he has to make. But there is no excuse for abuse and I have told him such. The interesting thing is that he admitted he knows he can raise his voice and start a fuss and mom will ease down. Now I have caught on and it is more difficult for him to succeed in the abusive behavior. His roadtest was cancelled by me when he displayed defiant behavior the two weeks before the test. I told him their would be consequences and what would happen. He will get the priviledge when he deserves it. His father doesn't help much as my son "told" me the other day he and his dad thought the end of May would be a good time for a road test. He lives with me and I told him it is a priviledge, work for it. I admit when being a single parent after divorce I made many mistakes with them and correcting them when he is older is tougher but I am accountable as being his parent and bringing them up right.

Comment By : Mom at 50

This article as everyone has mentioned has hit the nail on the head in sooo many ways! I have a 13 yr old who has severe issues at times. I am the primary caretaker and I have realized that I have made a lot of mistakes. When I remarried about 2 yrs ago my husband has put down his foot in an extreme way toward him. I also have been more consistent but to be honest there are times that I give in and do not discpline him in the correct way. Parenting is definetly the hardest job on the planet! You know all of the "experts" suggest so many solutions such as rewards and consequences, therapy, medication and so on. One time I went to a parenting class and the teacher suggested doing the 1-2-3 magic similar format. I asked her if all steps failed then what would you do. She said that if this does occur then you have "severe" issues and he needs extreme help. What does that mean? I mean they suggest counseling, military camps but in all truthfulness they don't know the right answer themselves. I have tried several methods and at the most they may work for a while but after a while my son gets tired of it and catches on and tries a new method which leads defiant behavior once again. I am so glad that I made that phone call and ordered this parenting package and I still have a loooong way to go. My prayers are with everyone here and I wish everyone the best of luck.

Comment By : Lisa

My son is 16 and he threatened to punch me last evening. He actually pushed me one time. He is a 6'7 240lb. football if he does, he could definitely hurt me. My husband is afraid of him! So...the next time we are in a confrontational situation, we agreed to stay away from each other for awhile. Think about things before we shout at each other. My husband actually took him for a long drive to "talk about things". This definitely helped a lot. I think that I actually did not help things by yelling back at him. Sometimes we all need a time out. Our son is not at all violent. He has never been in trouble in school and he is in high school. the teachers love him. He has never had a fight with another kids ever! Not even with his brother and sister! It is just centered on me. I cannot understand what kind of relationship I should have with him. I am his mother. My husband says he thinks we have some kind of a personality clash. I am the disciplinarian in the family. My husband is Mr. Softy. I feel as if I have to over compensate for the lack of discipline on my husbands side. We are definitely not on the same page as far as discipline, and it is becoming a very unhappy household due to this! Do I just let go? We have been in counseling for over a year now and nothing seems to be helping. Just a weary, desperate housewife. I don't have energy to do anything anymore and feel like a miserable failure of a mother. Any comments are welcome!

Comment By : cat

This comment is to "cat" from a mother and grandmother raising my seven year old grandson. I can relate to your "just a weary, desperate housewife. I don't have energy to do anything anymore and feel like a miserable failure of a mother." Here are my suggestion's: First and foremost, don't beat yourself up...I imagine that you are doing the best you can because you love your child. I would ask the counselor to help you and your hubby get on the same page...and if you don't get results, try another therapist. Conflict between parents definately have an affect on the child...and they know how to split parents. When I find myself getting "weary", I know that I have gotten off track as far as taking care of myself goes. I have more strength when I focus on my own well-being. For me that looks like, walking and biking (exercise), eating healthier (no emotional eating), proper rest, and meditation. I think as mother's we tend to take on more than what is our the other thing for me is finding the balance between what is mine and what is other's responsiability. Your not alone! Blessings...

Comment By : Lilliane

* Dear Cat: I think you do a great job of recognizing some of the relationship problems that need to change. What you want to be careful of is giving any excuse for your son’s abusive behavior, such as “it’s caused by a personality clash between yourself and your son.” Please don’t think that because the abuse is only directed at you, he is not violent. As you said, your husband is afraid of him. You might find that your family will need the assistance of community resources —- like counseling or police intervention -- to turn this around. James Lehman states, “There is no excuse for abuse.” He’s very clear on this point and hitting you or threatening to hit you cannot happen. Once a child has gained power and control in the house using violence, it can be difficult to turn it around. If he’s frustrated, fed-up, or furious, punching someone is not okay, or legal for that matter, or the acceptable way to solve your problems. James Lehman wrote a very good article about this, When Kids Get Violent. You and your husband might want to take some time and read this together. It’s important to let your son know that both of you are working together going forward to maintain a household where violence and abuse is not tolerated. We appreciate you sharing this concern with us and believe that it can turn around. Keep in touch with us.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

This was exactly how my ex-husand was raised and behaves as an adult. Now he sent this article me,wondering if this would help our sons. What I find interesting he thinks he had no part in teaching them this pattern of behavior. Can't wait for problem solving solutions and guidance to help with these issues,for my children future.

Comment By : Alice

I am nearly in tears after reading this article. My 18 yr old son is like this, and my 11 yr old son is following in his steps. I am so very angry at myself (and my husband) for allowing it to get to this point. Not so many years ago, if I would have seen or heard of other parents with this problem, I would've said they were crazy or just terrible parents for letting their kids get away with it. Now I'm one of those parents, and I hate myself for it. BTW, our 3 older sons are well-behaved, and are shocked at the things their younger brothers say and do. I am heartsick because I can't figure out where we went wrong!!!!

Comment By : Adele

Looking back, I see now where I fit this pattern along with my child. TT has opened my eyes and made me a much more effective parent. My child is coming around, and we have hope for her future for the first time in 12 years!

Comment By : Ellen G.

for the first time i feel this is my 9yr old daughter. the doctors told me she has Aspergers. I feel just like Cat and lillane. great advice. my problem is that she was my miracle baby. all my other children are much older and they are boys. i feel that i did something wrong. she is so angry and her social skills off. cant wait for next wk.

Comment By : hurt/tired mom

Thanks. Like others, I am on edge of my seat and needing to read part 2 as this is the most key problem I am having (including in carrying out consequences or ending arguments since threats and abuse always come when I am implementing or stating a consquence, or when I am trying to walk away from an argument -- then I feel I can't ignore the threats and abuse, so the "walking away after my final statement" doesn't seem like the right step (e.g. the verbal abuse is becoming a problem in implementing James' other directions for solving the other problems). I can't seem to find part 2 (I think he said it would be in the next newsletter; but I've scoured them looking for the article). Is it "still to come"? I hope you will run it soon; I and other readers who replied above all seem to really need it!

Comment By : Lisa, New Jersey

Lisa, Thanks for your comment. The next article is called, "When Kids Get Ugly: How to Stop Verbal Abuse and Threats" Hope this helps, and thanks for writing in.

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

This article was perfect. When told no to using the computer in the morning, our son became verbally defiant and disrespectful. When asked to change his tone and told to his response, "I don't care. Just type the password in!!!" No to using the computer for MySpace. "I need to use it for my school work (this is at 8 am, the computer was available all day yesterday after school. He read books instead.) Geez, I need to do my school work now!!!!!!" I left the house and took our dog on a walk after telling our son that he was out of control and needed to calm down. Thirty minutes later I came home to a quiet hourse. I let him get on the computer for his school work. "That wasn't so hard, was it?" he retorted as he walked past. I called his father on our cell and son closed the phone. I called his father back again and he said to make son ride his bike to school instead of mom driving him. I told son I wouldn't talk any more about this now, but would after he came home from school. I refused to have anything to do with him and secluded in another room. Before he left for school..."Mom, I'm sorry I talked like that to you. I just wanted to say that before I leave." I ignored him. It's always the same.....not get way, blow up, then apologize. It started when he was four. Wouldn't eat certain foods, so he would hide them or throw down the toilet. His defiance was always blamed on me, my controlling ways, and alike personality. My husband disagreed with all my discipline. I administered all the limits and spanked our son or timed him out. He had an outburst in school with the principal....tried to climb a fence telling her "I don't have to listen to you." Violin teacher met with defiance when he was asked to practice more. Home environment? Mom and dad constantly at odds. Interfering in-laws. Death of his infant brother, illness of his adoring grandmother, death of his favorite cat and dog, change to a new school. Take your pick.....stress was everywhere. He felt it I guess. It's reached a top now as he has threatened to leave numerous times and is hateful toward parents when his wants are thwarted. Ridicules their faith, their financial situation, etc. Punitive and cruel. Raising kids is tough. I feel for all of you out there. Yes, I feel embarrassed, but I also want to do something about it. Taking things away doesn't make this stop. He's 16. I will call the police if I can't get my husband's help when son is verbally hateful. It is just too painful to allow another day. It's awful to see this once cute little boy and smiling boy become this gutter mouth of venom toward those who raise him and love him. Such a volcano and so charming at other times. Friends, teachers love him and speak well of him. He is totally antagonistic to us at home. Please send the next part quickly.

Comment By : Mom who loves this inferno teen

wow i cant wait for the next article, this is so much my 13 year old son.

Comment By : blessedmomma2x

Dear blessedmomma2x: Here is the link to the next article -- I hope it's helpful. Please keep in touch.

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

WOW...I can't believe how many families are experiencing similiar situations. The comments made by "Mom who loves inferno son", really hit home. In addition to all husband does not support me, as his wife and mother of his son. He actually says in front of my son that "he doesn't know who to believe"!! He treats the situation as though my son is arguing and mistreatng his sibling, instead of it really being his mother! My husband "rewards" my son when he mistreats crazy as that sounds...I'm on the brink of a break down.

Comment By : momneedsassistance

This is a great article. I also can't wait for part two. This is exactly what we are going through with our 9 year older who has been dianosed with learning disabilities. This is great information and I really see what I am doing wrong by doing these things for her, just to keep the peace in our house. We also have a 4 year old daughter that is learning this behavior from her older sister. I can't wait to read the second part, this is great. Thank you.

Comment By : colleen

My son is starting to copy his verbally abusive father. He swore at me and won't apologise and sees no reason to and makes excuses and counter arguments to justify himself. He also paraphrases his father when passing comment eg you don't pay for X or Y it comes from the shopping money. My husband sees nothing wrong. I am tired of the disrespect from them both. HELP.j

Comment By : T Jay

* Dear “T Jay”: It is a difficult situation when parents do not support each other. If possible, see if you and your husband can find some area of agreement to start from regarding behavior rules for your son and build from there. If you cannot agree on holding your son accountable when he is verbally abusive, you can still speak on behalf of yourself when your son makes an inappropriate remark. In fact, it’s important that you always say something because your silence can be interpreted as you giving him permission to speak to you that way or that you somehow deserve to be spoken to that way. As James Lehman recommends in this article, say, “It’s not okay to speak to me that way. I don’t like it.” Call the Support Line specialists for more help in your specific situation.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Dear TJ, Wow i have a 20 year old son who is like your to a T. He degrades me in public and even in front of his father, and my husband just says ok now. This does not seem to stop at all. I have cried so many times and thought about leaving. My husband says don't get keep him going when i am trying to defend myself as a mother. We have another son, and daughter who does not do this to me. My son resents me and has because i have not worked scince 2007. he tries and makes me look dumb in public to. I never thought a child raised in a good home with values could ever become so verbal to me. He to says things like well dad pays for eveything you don't, or you need to grow up. When he gets really mad he says, move to PA. He hurts. I pray everyday he will change somehow. i know my husband could do more to. He is 20 and still lives at home, i love him but need peace.

Comment By : LJ

I wanted to start crying when I read your article. We have just started seeing a counselor with our 19 year old son who could be the poster child for your article. We adopted him at birth and know little of his birth family, he was disagnosed with ADD at six, never threw tantrums, but began verbally abusing us and his little sister (9 years younger) when he was about 13. It's like living with two people when you are around him, you just never know which one you are going to get and his mood can turn on a dime. The frustrating part is that it is never in front of anyone else. We recently had an incident in which he called 911 to report me (Mom) who dared to refuse to let him use my work computer when he got mad at his and damaged it. I was fortunate that the officers were experienced and recognized that he 6'2" 210lbs. was literally making things up about 5'2" 140lbs. me and said they were only sorry that they couldn't arrest him for being a spoiled brat. I am praying that the counseling will help as our whole family walks around on egg shells when we are around him - just trying to avoid the next blow. I love my son, but don't like him very much and I find that so terribly sad.

Comment By : RLC

I really liked your article, however my children did not become defiant until their abusive physician father and I divorced and I single parented utilizing techniques learned for strong willed children and their father interferred by enabling albeit from a distance. IE: I set walking to school as a measure given for my twin boys insubordination that surfaced in junior highschool. Dad thwarted this measure by picking the boys up while they were enroute walking and took them to school. I found out about it from the counselor at the school. Dad has continued undermining me and my authority,something he did in the marriage and things have progressed to the point of the twins simply blowing me off routinely. I try to remember that I can control things and not people to avoid overreaction but I worry as a nurse parent about my boys learning this defiant and manipulative behavior that their father is teaching them to do to me, their mother and my daughter their sister when she backs me up.

Comment By : Single Mom

* Dear ‘Single Mom’: It’s very challenging when a former spouse attempts to sabotage our discipline decisions. What you want to focus on, however, is not your ex’s behavior but your kids. James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation Program, teaches us how to hold our kids accountable for their behavior choices. Regardless of the influence of others—their friends or their father—your kids are responsible for finding a way to follow your house rules. Don’t let them off the hook by turning your the attention to their Dad. Establish clear house rules for your kids and come up with a system of rewards and consequences related to those rules. To learn more about effective consequences to use when your sons “blow you off”, read How to Give Kids Consequences That Work, Also, you can call the Trained Specialists on the Support Line for more techniques on using the Total Transformation Program in your own home. Keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Thank you for the article, it gives great insight. I am looking forward to reading part two.

Comment By : mea

I just finished reading this and it describes so many things in the past and present. I was divorced when my son was young. I was the mom that did pick things up because it was easier than having to deal with more arguing and more accusations from my ex telling my son (and daughter) if your mom loves you she would.....(buy you the $100.00 shoes or bike. he also only picked them up when taking them out to eat or to the movies, no matter how much trouble they were in for misbehaving at school) My sons father would tell me (with children present) that child support was to be spent on the children, not on rent etc.. which created more complications with my son. My son now 19 years old has learned how to totally control and manipulate me into getting exactly what he wants. Three years ago, I started a new relationship. The first few times my son started throwing what I term temper tantrums, because we (my boyfriend and I) would not give into his demands, he then calls his father to confirm his previous statements of "if your mom loves you". There was an instance where my son (at 16) had gotten angry because I would not give into him, threw and MP3 player at my head, busted my computer monitor and then threw a boot at me. My boyfriend and I see what is happening but have no answers and this has threatened our relationship more than once. I know my son is in mental and emotional pain. I love son unconditionally, I want him to know this. but more importantly I want/need to know how to help him, myself and the rest of our family. Thank you so much for letting me know we are NOT alone.

Comment By : cathart

* Dear ‘cathart’: Dealing with kids who use manipulation can be difficult. It requires that you respond differently toward your child in order to see changes in their behavior. See: Masters of Manipulation: How Kids Control You With Behavior. As James Lehman writes, some forms of manipulation are harmless and normal. Kids ask us for permission for things all the time and learn that being charming can go a long way toward getting a ‘yes’ from us. The real problem with manipulation arises when kids turn to using threats or intimidation on their parents. When this happens it’s important not to give in to these threats. When a parent gives in, it teaches the child to use this method—because it works. The other issue you mention is that there is stress in your relationship with your boyfriend over issues with your son’s behavior. Ask your boyfriend to support you and your parenting decisions and to allow you to take a lead role in the disciplining of your son.

Comment By : Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor

This article describes my son as he is today. Is it possible these behaviors start in late teens and early adulthood? My son is 22 years old. The problems began when he was about 18 years old, as a Junior in high school. At an early age he was diagnoses with ADHD and dyslexia. He changed to a school that worked with these types of kids, he also had a tutor and family counselor. He was a good kid, although not perfect. He learned how to manipulate, lie, and was given too much power, including a car, by his grandparents, during those later high school years that has set him on a distructive path. He is now an adult who can't hold a job, getting kicked out of the military, 3 evictions, living on the streets and on drugs. Is it too late for long distance parenting?

Comment By : SL

* Dear ‘SL’: Your situation is a tough one and I am sure it has been very emotional for you as well. It’s so hard to parent once kids “leave the nest” so to speak. Our tools are designed for parents who are still in a position of authority but something you can certainly use are James’ effective parenting roles to try to help your son from a distance. The three effective parenting roles are the Limit Setter, the Trainer and Coach, and the Problem Solver. Basically the goal of these roles is to help children develop the skills they need to deal with their problems in a more effective way. It will be difficult because you can’t hold your son accountable in this situation, but you can have discussions with him about what he can do differently. You might want to start by encouraging him to get some support in his local area. The United Way offers an information and referral website,, that will allow you to search for supports (such as shelters, counselors, and substance abuse treatment) in his area. You can find more information about the three effective parenting roles by viewing this article by James Lehman: Do You Feel Like Your Child's Behavior is Your Fault?. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Hang in there.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I am having the same problem with my 17 years son, I am a single mother even I had to leave my job because I couldn't concentrate.

Comment By : Ishrat

I have a 19 yr old that still lives at home. He doesn't do drugs or drink. He rides motocross and wanted to go pro. About 2 yrs ago I kindof ran out of money to pay for all of what is needed to race and ride. He got very depressed and just about all of the symptoms that I have read that you wrote describe him to a tee. He is not violent towards his mother or I but very verbally abusive. He has no problem solving skills, no social skills, no friends and many other problems. We homeschooled him so that we could travel around for his racing when he was younger. So he wasn't consistently around people other than us very often. So I would say thats my fault. So when he gets angry or feels embarressed or just about any emotion other than happiness he lashes out at me or his mother. He is very hard headed like his mother so they are always fighting verbally about every little thing. He will call her names and she will take it for a while and then she will lash back and call him names. Recently there was a very big explosion and now she wants me to just boot him out. Well he doesn't have a job, and from riding all the time no skills to get one plus no work to be had where we live. She feels that he is taking over the house and that she is confined to our upstairs in our house. So she blames me for all of this and tells me that I am not doing anything to stop it. "that i am not being the man". I don't feel that kicking him out of the house is going to solve anything. He is not willing to go to counseling because he doesn;t think that anything is wrong. He thinks its all his mothers fault. So I don't know what to do andhave no where to turn. Is there anyway that I can solve this while he is still living here? Do you think that TT could help me and my situation? I am really torn on what to do and my wife is telling me that if I don't boot him out the she is going. I don;t want that but he has no where to go. No relatives or friends or anything. Please Help.

Comment By : crfframer1

* To ‘crfframer1’: It sounds like you are feeling caught in the middle here. Whether you and your wife kick your son out or not is up to you, but I would ask you this: what is your goal? What do you both want for your son? Do you want him to learn how to be more respectful, or do you want some peace in your home? What’s more important? If it’s peace, having him leave would be the answer, though not without a cost and some conflict. If it’s to have him learn to be more respectful, the Total Transformation Program can help you with that. The program focuses on teaching parents how to be more effective in their roles of Problem Solvers, Trainers and Coaches, and Limit-Setters for their children. James Lehman’s program will help you learn how to hold your son accountable for being more respectful and how to respond effectively in the face of verbal abuse. The Parental Support Line is here to help you and mom come up with a clear plan to do this. The best way to see how the program works for you, ultimately, is to try it! Here’s something else for you to think about as you make your decision: you and your wife are giving your son a lot of power right now by confining yourselves to the upstairs of your home. Live your life, do what you need to do around the house, pick your battles, and when things get heated you absolutely want to walk away. Instead of going upstairs, try going for a walk or going to visit a friend over coffee. Don’t allow yourself to be a prisoner in your own home! We wish you luck as you work through this and we hope to hear from you soon. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

This forum hits me on so many ways. My 19 year old has given me problems since high school. Grades dropped, friends he hung around where influentual, basically he became a follower to them. He ran away from home several times and is now in and out of our home because of our fights we continually have. He constantly uses his older brother who is in college as an excuse saying "he can never be like him", when I always tell him he needs to be his own person and not like anyone else. His latest now is he became verbally abusive to me so I asked him to leave for a week. Not sure if he's coming back, hope he does but my stomach wrenches 24/7 for him.

Comment By : sk

Thank you for a wonderful article, including the second part as well. Sadly, we fit the mold you describe perfectly. Luckily, my son is only 8 years old - but boy the damage an 8 yo can do! I left his aggressive, verbally abusive father when he turned four and two weeks before his younger sister was born. We have joint custody (long story) and are both happily remarried. Most of the time our relationship is amiable. He adores the kids and says his new marriage works because his wife 'doesn't put up with his s--t'. It is such a shock for me to now find myself back in an abusive relationship again with my son and to hear the tone, words and intention of his father coming out of such a little boy's mouth. At first I felt powerless and had a hard time separating my son and his behavior from the traumatic associations with the memory of his father. Talking with my Ex about his behavior is out of the question - I fear he will just say I'm crazy as always, making things up again. Three years ago the school social worker suggested therapy for our son and my Ex railed against them (in private only, to me of course). He completely lost it. Nothing was wrong with our son - it was the school that was screwed up. After three tries I gave up. It's been my hope all along that being with us he might experience what it is to be part of a loving family. My husband is very supportive of me and empathetic toward Max and our history. Last night we laid down the rules and then I saw your article - I can see we did the right thing and need to be proactive. I will read the article again and have my husband read it too - wonderful insight and guidance, thank you.

Comment By : Bklyn

I am going through all these emotions. Such as where did I go wrong, What did I do, The verbal abuse has reached its limits. She is now 21 years old and no respect for me as her mother. She rambles on how everything is my fault. I have asked to to leave cause regardless what I have asked her to do to improve her life does not work. I also have a 24 month baby I fret that she is exposed to these. Just recently I had to call the cops cause what I thought would never happend occured. My 21 yr daugther assulted me along with the her baby sister in my arms. I weighted my oprions and wnet to the cops. She was arrested and was charged with assult and endagerment of a child. Now if have ACS comming to see me. I feel I was the victim and I had to get help not be the one put on the spot. I would never endeger the live of my baby never. I just heard horror about ACS and there decisions. I will be observed for 60 days. I am ok with it it is just the manner that thye appear and make you feel the guilty one is not right. What can I do I know that i need counseling and I am looking for one cause I am a strong woman but the verbal abuse from my 21yr old has really done a job on my state of mind and not health for me or the baby.

Comment By : LAC

* To ‘LAC’: Nobody deserves to be abused, physically or verbally, by anybody. We support your decision to call the police on your daughter so that she will be held accountable. The best thing you can do right now is to get yourself some support. The folks at ACS may be able to refer you to some appropriate resources. You can also contact 211, an information and referral service, at 1-800-273-6222 or You might also want to review this article series about adult children:
Failure to Launch, Part 1: Why So Many Adult Kids Still Live with Their Parents
Failure to Launch, Part 2: How Adult Children Work the "Parent System"
Failure to Launch, Part 3: Six Steps to Help Your Adult Child Move Out
We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My son who can be so sweet, loving and worry about hurting others feelings can be the MOST HATEFUL child on this earth. I have seen nothing like it. I believe he was born that way to a certain extent because even as a baby he would go into rage if he wasn't happy about something. He also experienced Night terrors and would wake up for an hour screaming and flipping out and there was no consoling him. As a toddler, in time out he would throw chairs and has broken a mirror to say the least. He was a child who always became obsessed about certain things in his life. His obsession now is video games and no matter how I try to limit or allow him to play a bit longer he is a bear when I tell him to shut the machine off. He is also very sneaky. I don't know if he has a disorder or not. He has been assessed before and they say he could be borderline ADHD. He is extremely smart, but loses focus(although it never reflects in his marks at school). My biggest worry now is how he has become so hateful. He's very mouthy. Telling me he doesn't have to do certain things when I ask and he will purposely destroy things of his younger brothers to get a reaction out of him especially when something is taken away from him. He has hit his brother in the past. He is eleven and his brother is eight. His brother looks up to him so much, it's sad because he just wants his brother back that use to play with him 2 years ago. Do you think my child could quite possibly have ODD or are we just doing everything ALL wrong?

Comment By : snikib

I suffered verbal and emotional abuse from my ex-spouse. It took me a long time to realize that I was being abused; put down and demeaned but I finally managed to leave my marriage. Before I left I noticed my daughter (about 9/10 at the time) was exhibiting similar behaviour towards me as my ex. Once I was out of the house I was able to rediscover myself and rebuild my self esteem. However, over the last two years and trying to deal with an emotionally abusive ex with joint custody my self esteem has crumbled again which has put me into a vicious circle of emotional abuse. Abuse not only coming from my ex but on a very subtle level from my daughter. She also spends a lot of time with my 8 year old son and I have heard the verbal abuse towards him....nothing aggressive...just constant criticism and nagging. Which is also what I receive as well as emotional blackmail. It is all VERY VERY subtle. Can someone please tell me how to break the cycle and regain my self esteem and strength as a parent. No-one can change what happens at Dad's place and clearly her behaviour is modelled on his. All I have been told so far is to get thicker skin and show my kids more love. Although this may be good advice I don't think this is a solution. If anyone can relate to this situation....please HELP!

Comment By : pleib

* To ‘pleib’: It’s easy to see why you would be so concerned about your daughter’s behavior. Many children will emulate the behavior of their parents. You are absolutely correct that you can’t change what happens at dad’s home. And, while your daughter’s behavior certainly feels abusive and hurtful, it doesn’t sound like it’s really reached the point of full-blown verbal abuse yet—screaming, name calling, or cursing, for example. For criticizing and nagging like you’re experiencing, the best thing to do is focus on not giving the behavior any power. It feels like a really significant issue, of course, yet what we find most effective in these situations is to ignore it or set a limit (such as “I don’t like it when you talk to me that way”) and walk away. Walking away lets your daughter know that you are in control and you are not her emotional peer. It also helps you to avoid reinforcing or rewarding her behavior by engaging with her when she’s talking to you inappropriately. If you’d like, you can also use problem-solving conversations to teach your daughter some new and more respectful ways of communicating with others in your home. Here is another article for more information and ideas: "I Hate You, Mom! I Wish You Were Dead!" When Kids Say Hurtful Things. We know this is difficult and we wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I hear all thise behavior coming from teenagers, but how do I handle a six year old? I started to notice his angry and rude behavior at age 4. He raises his hand at me and his little sister and says he hates us. Amd tells his little sister he is going to beat her up and hit her in the face. Uses phrases like "I don't care" ,and "So". I really dislike when I hear this from him. How can I handle this behavior ??

Comment By : mty123

* To “mty123”: Thank you for writing in. You ask a great question. Many parents are perplexed about how to use the tools with a younger child because many examples are with pre-teens and teens. When working with younger children, the tools and techniques are the same but the language and time frames may be modified to take the child’s developmental age into account. For example, when your son is being disrespectful to you, you would set the limit in the moment and walk away if possible. If he’s being rude to you, you can say something to him like “It’s not OK to talk to me that way. I don’t like it.” If it’s safe to leave him unsupervised, you can walk away. If not, then you would just stop talking to him. You can teach your daughter this same technique and instruct her to walk away when he’s being mean to her. This is how you would address the behavior in the moment. After things have calmed down, you would problem solve with him ways he could behave differently and give him a task-oriented consequence for his behavior. An example of a task-oriented consequence for a 6 year old might be loss of television or another electronic device until he can behave respectfully to other family members for an hour. Here are a couple articles you may find helpful: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems" and Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to address this challenging behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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Verbally abusive, Children, Teenagers, Verbal abuse, Threats, Intimidation, Manipulation

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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