To parent means to sacrifice. Well before your children are born the sacrifices begin. You suffer through morning sickness, backaches, discomfort, and weight gain. Your child arrives and your life changes. You’re up all night with a crying infant or later, a sick child. You miss work when your kids are sick, you go without so they can have the things they need and want. Maybe you’ve even given up some personal goals or dreams to give more time to your children. It hurts you to see your child unhappy or unwell…and yet he has the nerve to scream at you. He gets angry and he yells, “I hate you, mom! I wish you were dead! You’re the worst mom ever!” Perhaps your teen even goes on to say, “I can’t wait to get the f--- out of this house! I hate it here!”
Your child probably doesn’t feel like he owes you anything for all the great work you do as a parent—most kids don’t, in part because they perceive the world very differently than we do.
Why is this the hardest thing to hear from your child, and why is it so easy to take it personally?
There are few things in the world that hurt a parent more than hearing their child say hurtful words like these. They cut like a knife. You think, “Don’t you appreciate all that I have done for you? How dare you speak to me that way!” You’ve just been attacked. You’re hurt. You’re furious. It’s so easy to take this as a personal attack because when we give up so much for someone, we almost always expect good things from them in return. Here’s the truth: Your child probably doesn’t feel like he owes you anything for all the great work you do as a parent—most kids don’t, in part because they perceive the world very differently than we do.
Let me be clear: It’s very important to understand that these hurtful words your child is using are not about you at all. When you take it personally, it often leads to a big emotional reaction from you which reinforces the bad behavior. This tells your child that he’s powerful—and has power over you—which helps the behavior continue in the future. After all, who doesn’t want to feel powerful at least once in a while?
Kids often spout off hurtful words like these when they have a problem they don’t know how to solve, whether they’re angry, stressed, or dealing with feelings about something bad that happened at school that day. Not being able to handle his problems leads your child to feelings of discomfort—and pushing your buttons and getting a strong emotional reaction from you helps to make up for those feelings of discomfort. Don’t get me wrong, your child isn’t consciously aware of this in most cases, but causing you to be upset helps him to compensate for his inability to handle the problem he’s facing at the time. Some kids also say hurtful things as a means of trying to get what they want. If they can hurt you, you might feel bad or doubt yourself and then give in. So in some cases, it’s a way to achieve a more tangible goal.
I think it’s also worth noting that kids often have a lot of faulty thinking that they use to justify their behavior. In other words, they think that if they perceive someone as being mean or if they see something as being unfair, that makes it okay to be hurtful toward the offender.
In the Eye of the Verbal Storm: What to Do—and What to Avoid Doing
Reacting to what your child says by being angry or upset is normal—after all, you’re only human. While an emotional reaction is a very natural thing, it often leads to ineffective choices. Here is a list of what not to do when your child says mean and hurtful things to you:
Don’t say hurtful things back. Your natural reaction might be to say something like, “Well, I hate you too!” or, “Well, I wish I never had you! What do you think about that?!” But saying something hurtful in response sends your child the message that you are not in control. It also models ineffective problem solving for your child. In other words, it shows your child that the way to handle verbal attacks is to launch a verbal counterattack. Leave the cursing and name–calling out, too. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as the old saying goes.
Don’t scream or yell. Screaming, yelling, or even raising your voice will lead to the same ineffective outcome as saying something hurtful. You will show your child that you are not in control emotionally, that you are his emotional peer, and again, you are modeling ineffective ways to solve problems or conflicts with others. Not to mention, you’re essentially giving up your power to the child. Do you really want to do that?
Don’t say “You can’t…” A lot of parents respond to their children by saying something like, “You can’t talk to me that way!” Well, the truth is, they can. You can’t control what words come out of your child’s mouth—that’s something they have complete control over at all times. When you say, “You can’t” to your child, it can incite a power struggle as your child might think, “Oh yeah? Try and stop me!” and on and on he goes. Try to choose other words instead. (I’ll give you some examples of more effective verbal responses in a moment.)
Don’t try to reason with your child in the heat of the moment. Oftentimes, parents will lecture or try to reason with their kids to try to get them to see things their way. Some parents might say, “Well, someday I will be dead, and then what will you do?” Others might point out all the things they do for their child to convince him he should be more grateful and respectful. That vast difference in perception between you and your child that I mentioned earlier means there’s a very good chance you won’t be able to get him to see eye–to–eye with you. You’re effectively asking him to get up to a level he just isn’t at right now. As James Lehman says, “Don’t hold your breath… Don’t expect immediate compliance, appreciation, insight, acknowledgement or credit in response to your parenting efforts.” That will come later. Much, much later. And when a kid is that upset, he’s not going to be able to really hear what you’re saying, anyway. It’s wasted energy that’s best spent controlling your own emotions instead.
Don’t punish or give big consequences. It’s very easy for parents to go to that place of, “Fine, if you don’t appreciate anything I do for you or anything you have, then we’ll see how you do without it!” Taking away all of your child’s prized possessions, emptying out his room, or taking things away for weeks or months at a time will not be effective. Why? Because these punishments will not teach your child the skills he needs to manage himself more effectively in the future to not say hurtful things to others. They will only teach him to “do time” and will breed resentment towards you. Consequences do not always speak for themselves. You have to step up to the plate and be your child’s coach.
Instead, try these more effective responses to gain control of the situation.
Stay calm. Take a deep breath and think about what you will say—and how you’ll say it—before you let the words out of your mouth.
Be aware of your nonverbal communication. Non–verbal cues such as tone, volume, facial expression, body positioning, and the pace of your words are extremely powerful in communication with others. Non–verbal communication or body language can have a huge impact on how your message is interpreted. Try to avoid crossing your arms, putting your hands on your hips, rolling your eyes, or talking at a fast pace, for example. Keep your facial expressions as neutral as possible. It’s a good idea to do a mental check and ask yourself, “How am I coming across right now with my body language?” and make the appropriate adjustments.
Keep your verbal response direct and brief. When your child hurls an insult at you, it’s helpful to say something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you’re still responsible for taking out the garbage,” or “Talking to me that way isn’t going to get you out of doing your homework. Go do it.” One of my personal favorites is, “Maybe you do hate living here, but you still have to be home on time.” What you’re doing when you respond like this is effectively and gently challenging your child’s poor behavior and helping him see that it isn’t going to solve his problem, and then you’re redirecting him to the task at hand. The goal here is to be assertive, not aggressive.
If you’re struggling to stay cool, walk away. When your emotions get the best of you, get yourself involved in another activity that will be calming for you. Walking away shows that you are in control and that you have the authority in the situation. If you’d like, you can come back and address the issue with your child at a later time when things have calmed down, which will be much more effective.
In the moment right after your child has used words as a weapon against you, it’s important to try and follow the suggestions above as best you can. With most kids, staying calm, gently challenging them, and setting clear limits (walking away) is enough to gradually decrease the behavior over time. We don’t recommend giving consequences for hurtful statements because when there are so many challenging things going on, it can become really overwhelming to consequence every little verbal outburst. Picking your battles will be very important, as will not giving in to your child and not giving him what he wants when he speaks to you this way. If you feel you must do more to address this issue in your home, you can certainly add some problem–solving discussions once things cool off to help your child develop the skills to solve his problems in a more effective way.
I also want to note that there is a distinct difference between a child saying, “I wish you were dead,” and “I’m going to kill you.” When children make threatening comments like this, it is important to check in with a local professional such as your child’s pediatrician, therapist, school counselor, or a local crisis line.
Will following these suggestions be easy? No. Will it feel good? Not at all. I hear from parents on the Parental Support Line about similar issues often and I know that following these suggestions usually leads parents to feel that they are letting their child get away with something. But here’s the thing to take away from this article: The suggestions here will help you stay in control and not take things personally, role model positive self–management skills, challenge kids, and set clear limits with them to let them know, by your actions, that their behavior is not okay. So try your best, stay consistent, and remind yourself that even though it doesn’t always feel good, you’re on the right track.
Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.
Great article. Couple of observations. Regarding the 3rd response where it suggests saying: “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you’re still responsible for taking out the garbage,”. It's fine and appropriate to apologize for 'our' behavior as parents. In fact, I think most of us should be much better at this. We want them to apologize for their behavior, but we never model it. However, it is never appropriate to apologize for THEIR behavior or feelings. Not only is it illogical... it is basically taking responsibility for 'their' feelings.
Other other suggestion I would make is to use the word 'and' rather than 'but' whenever possible. "But" is confrontational. "And" is not. It's a little thing, but a year or so ago, I heard a counselor make this suggestion. I've been doing it for awhile and I believe it helps. Example: “I realize that you hate living here... and you still have to be home on time.”
Hope these are helpful to the cause!
Comment By : ForConsideration
I think the articles are great especially since it is hard to change my own behavior as well as the child's.
Comment By : joanngem
Excellent article, I have had 6 teenagers and now this last one the 7th is a challenge to deal with and this article gave me alot of good Ideas.
Comment By : Irene
perfect timing for me and my 10 year old son.
Comment By : myfaith94
Very timely article! My son has ME CONVINCED that I'm unlovable...he's got his Dad (divorced) to support his position. My son is a few months from age 18...when will they start acting GROWN UP? I have been facing this angry, mean boy for over 2 years and I'm worn down. HE gets support from his Dad (who tells him one-sided stories) and I am alone in this. I continue to maintain high standards for behavior, grades, character, but he goes on the offensive and that's the end of Mom's happy weekend! If I give in, I'm afraid it proves I'm a lousy Mom.
Comment By : holding on
Reply to 'ForConsideration': use of the word sorry in the reply 'I am sorry you feel that way' is not an apology; not meant as 'I apologize you feel that way' but rather it is said to mean I feel bad for you. For example when you hear someone had a death or illness in their family, you might say I am sorry to hear that. You do not mean I apologize to hear that. The correct context would mean that you sympathize, understand, acknowledge, or have compassion for the other person. This is the correct context with which the word sorry is used in the article.
Comment By : garellano
i needed this today... for my four year old's sassy attitude towards me last night, which resulted in my horrible response back to her and the self doubt I have felt about myself as a single parent and mother to my three children.
Comment By : cissy
Good article but hard to do when your child is cursing at you and throwing things. I do my best to follow the guidelines. Seems that almost every night this scene is replayed. How do we know when you are giving in vs. walking away so that things don't escalate? Too many times it seems that his haraung starts to get out of something and if I continue to be calm and reiterate that he needs to do it, his verbal attacks get worse the more I stand my ground. Is there no consequence for telling off your mother?
Comment By : Jen.
This article makes a lot of sense to me, however, life in the real world, with real kids, is a lot different that the idealistic world that the author (an admitted aunt, not a parent) envisions. I know a lot of parents who use these techniques yet their kids are mean spirited brats. Call me skeptical...
Comment By : Skeptical
great article;great wisdom. thank you for the suggestions on how to respond. this can be used for all ages
Comment By : Joyous
My daughter is 9 years old and tells me the exact same things everyday she even calls me an idiot. She has ADHD and is on medication for it, but I still think this behavior is unaccreptable if I ever talked to my parents that way I would have been spanked and punished.
Comment By : michhar515
If anyone thinks "I'm sorry you feel that way" is too apologetic in tone, you might want to try, "Well, it's unfortunate you feel that way, but (or and) you still have to take out the garbage." Apologetic phrasing eliminated!
Comment By : Worried Mom
My son, just turned 11, does all of this and also has ADHD. This only adds lack of impulse control to everything else that's going on. Very, very hard to take - thanks for the advice & encouragement.
Comment By : Thirdteenboy!
Worried Mom's using 'unfortunate' insead of 'sorry' is much better. And the child's words are disrespectful to say the least. If the parent is a drug addict or otherwise terrible, then it's understandable. But when we knock ourselves out being fair, consistent, persistent, loving and involve our chldren in all types of academic & enrichment activities, such words by the child are unacceptable and should not be tolerated. I have never been told these mean things and have established that it would not be tolerated. What ever happened along the way that a child would think of uttering such things? They can keep it to themselves just as we do when we feel like saying something horrible. When we expect so little from our children, they deliver exactly that.
Comment By : mom2go
As for parents tolerating students disrespectful comments and back talk including cursing and insulting, there are usually two causes for this and each one needs to be dealt with differently. One cause is that students were not taught how to be respectful and have become rude and disrespectful teenagers. Perhaps parents were too lenient or allowed behavior like this when the children were little and it seemed "cute". Many parents let their children be sassy at a young age which may lead to students acting that way as teenagers, which is not cute and consequences and training should be implemented. Another cause is dysfunction or divorce or other situations which have occurred in the family. This article is relating these tips to these situations. In this case, all of these strategies are helpful. I use them everyday in my classroom (I work with middle and high school students who are gang members, on probation, have been expelled, etc...) and they work.
Comment By : Stacy Nichols
Great article. Very helpful tips. The best thing we parents can do is remain calm because it shows our children they cannot control us. I have been dealing with rude behavior for 4 years now and it is critical how the parent reacts. Now that my older child (age 15) is finally getting it, her younger brother is starting the disrespectful behavior and I intend to nip it in the bud. I also want to add to ForConsideration's suggestion about using "and" instead of "but." That is critical in all of our communication, whether with disrespectful kids or in a normal adult conversation. After studying communication techniques and the psychology of communication, this concept is known as the and stance. The problem is when someone says, "but," the listener stops listening. So I always try to replace "but" with "and."
Comment By : MediatorMom
* To Jen: If your child is cursing at you and throwing things, you absolutely want to walk away. It certainly can feel like you’re letting him get away with something when you walk away, but walking away is actually the best way to show your child that you are the one in control of the situation. And besides, you can’t stop him from cursing or throwing things. Trying to stop him will result in a very unpleasant power struggle that we do not recommend getting into. I am not surprised that his behavior worsens when you stand your ground because he is trying to get you to give in. If you have given in to this behavior even once before, he’ll keep trying to get you do it again. And again, and again. If you consistently remain calm, reiterate the expectation once, and then walk away, the behavior should decrease over time. He absolutely should have consequences later for being verbally abusive and throwing things at you, but wait until things calm down to problem solve and let him know what those consequences are.
Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor
@ mom2go: I agree with what you said in your comment, however it becomes much more difficult when you are faced with a teenage son who is no longer intimidated by his "stupid" mom, who stands @ 6 ft tall and has the most defiant, disrespectful attitude towards his mother. My father kicked my butt if I said disrespectful things to my mother! But unfortunately, times have changed and teenagers/children now have this false sense of entitlement. I intermittently took all of his "important" possessions away as punishment and merely found out that he did not seem to even care! So then what? If nothing works, what are you left with for options?
I was always the disciplinarian parent and his pathetic father was always the "fun" guy. I never tolerated disrespect from my son, even though he heard it frequently directed at me from his father. But as he has grown into his teens, he realized that there was only so much I could do and/or control. I looked into military schools, incorrigible teenager programs, wilderness programs or anything that would help; I could not afford ANY of it! It is very evident that only the wealthy can utilize these programs since they charge more than I make in a year! So, I ask, what is a parent to do when they are so defiant and out of control? I harbor so much disappointment, sadness, heartache and resentment towards my 19 yr old son for the last 5 yrs of hell, not to mention all of the anger that has resurfaced towards my ex-husband for his inactive presence in his sons life. I feel so lost and hopeless about it all. My son is ruining his life, refuses to do any counseling or anything positive, has been in jail several times this yr, is addicted to weed/drugs/alcohol, he continually attempts to make me feel horrible for kicking him out of my house, he is officially homeless and yet will not try to get a job. I have told him repeatedly that I want to help him, but that I cannot do for him what he should be doing for himself (job, responibilities, etc.)... I am so exhausted over it all and feel like I cannot take another day of blame and torment.
Comment By : joann.a
To joann.a I cannot afford this program either as I am a single mom as well. I have been reading the news letters. They have been very helpful. Please don't give up. I pray alot. A whole lot. And I do try to follow the suggestions. It is very hard to be consistent and that's my problem. My son has a girlfriend and I think that's part of the problem. She manipulates him into cutting school and therefore his grades are horrible. I have stopped taking his things away from him and set consequences instead. As a single mom, I have done so much to make up for the divorce which was more harmful and now reading the articles, my son cannot problem solve. I have good days and bad days. I keep applying the suggestions and there has been a small change. There are going to be good days and bad days, and that's O.K. I also use these suggestions in my own relationships at work and they do work. And when one works, it makes me happier and I seem to have more good days. I think these program is a work in process, a life change for us as parents and for our children. Please don't be discouraged. We all are great parents, if we weren't we wouldn't be trying to help our children. Don't give up. Pray, pray and read these articles.
Comment By : Lynn
Great article . I guess when a teenager tells you that he or she hates you , it is understandable that they just want to hurt you or get out of something but the most painful thing is that you over hear her telling her friends how much she hates her mum and how she wished she was dead... How can u not take this personal ? the pain and heartache is just enormous .
Comment By : Mary
I realize my non verbal communication has been screaming volumes at my kids. I need to adjust that part too. I realized my back would suddenly get stiff and internally I was ready for a fight. Thank God I got this program when our kids are young (girl 12, boy 9). I know there will be bumps along the road and going off the path on either part but having these tools on board enables me as a parent to logically handle their individuation which is a normal part of growing up. Kids will always test the boundaries and teenagers especially.
Comment By : Lauriewithtravellinghusband
Wow what a morning!!! Thanks for this article!!! I know what to do but in the heat of the moment its so hard to remain calm and say and do the right thing, but I'm willing to keep at it for the sake of my children!!!!
Comment By : stressed out mommy
My son is 8 and he is constantly telling me he does not love me when he is angry because he did not get his way. His anger is explosive (screaming, hitting/kicking, door slamming, etc) and there are many times I can't imagine using some of the techniques listed because he often attacks his younger sister on top of screaming at me. I definitely need to learn to remain calm and not take things personally (which is so darn hard!!) But what do you do when you have tried the techniques listed above and the child still refuses to comply? Is time out/time in appropriate? I'm at my wits end and could really use some advice!!
Comment By : Stressed out
* To “stressed out mom”: I can hear how frustrating this behavior is. You’re correct that the first step in addressing this behavior is remaining calm in the face of it. This can be much easier said than done. In her article Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy, Debbie Pincus gives some great ideas on how to remain calm when your child is pushing your buttons. Time outs can be an effective way of helping your son calm down when he’s upset. As for consequences, we would suggest consequences that are task oriented. An example of a task oriented consequence would be withholding a privilege until your son can go a certain amount of time without screaming or attacking his sister. For instance, you may say something to him like “I know you’re disappointed I said no. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to yell at me or hit your sister. When you show me you can go for 2 hours without yelling or hitting, then you can watch TV.” It will be most effective not to give him consequences in the moment but wait until things have calmed down a bit. Giving him consequences in the moment can escalate the situation. A task oriented consequence allows your son to practice the appropriate behavior. This linked with helping him develop better problem solving skills is an effective way to help him learn to deal with disappointments more appropriately. A great article on how to give effective consequences is How to Give Kids Consequences That Work. I hope this has been helpful. Good luck as you work through this challenging situation. Take care.
Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor
I agree that it's not good to say mean things back to your child. Like many people reading this, I just came from an incident: I told my ten year old boy to sit down, we were having lunch, and he wanted to read a magazine, which I did not want him to do, so took it, and when he refused to put it down, I took it and told him to sit down and eat. He yelled, "You asshole!" Now here's where it does seem legitimate to be angry and say, "You may not use that language and you may not speak to me, your mother, that way ever again!" And to insist that he eat in his room, that he write down ten time that he's sorry, and no computer or TV today. I don't feel great about yelling and losing my cool, but on the other hand it would be unnatural not to do so. If I act cool when I'm not, what does that teach him? He also has to know that other people will not put up with this.
Comment By : Marilyn
Is there any article dealing with parenting a kid with ADD (& inattentive problems) (potential ODD) when they've just crossed the line of adulthood? My son quit school 3 weeks before graduation, punched holes in the wall, screamed horrible things at his dad and I and neither of us handled it well. He hasn't spoken with me in over a year; he had his final outburst just 3 days after his father passed away.
Comment By : Ethans1991Mom
Dear Ethans1991Mom: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story with us. Enduring the loss of your spouse and also experiencing conflict with your son in the same year must be incredibly painful. We're so glad you found Empowering Parents, and hope that you've also found support in your area from friends and family (and support groups), as well. We are planning to do a feature article on this topic very soon, but in the mean time, we do have some articles you might find helpful here: http://www.empoweringparents.com/category-Adult-Children.php
Thank you so much again for writing in, and please keep in touch and let us know how it's going.
Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor
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