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My ODD Child is Physically Abusive to Siblings and Parents—Help!

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW
My ODD Child is Physically Abusive to Siblings and Parents—Help!

Recently, there have been several stories in the news about violence in children and what can—and should—be done about it. A five-year-old boy was taken out of his Kindergarten class in handcuffs in Indiana, and the same thing happened to a six-year-old girl in Louisiana. Talk shows and the news media have been hosting shows on whether or not a parent should ever call the police on their own child. Everyone seems to have an opinion—usually a strong one—about the “right” way to handle a child or adolescent who is violent toward others, particularly family members. There’s no behavior—with the exception of substance abuse or self-harm—that frightens parents as much as a child’s physical aggression.

"It can be terrifying when your child is violent toward you or others, but you do not have to live like a prisoner in your own home."

Why Do Kids Become Violent?

Why does anyone become violent? Violence has existed since the beginning of time and is sadly found in so many types of relationships: child abuse, sibling abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, and in crimes of passion or hatred. The motto of people who are violent to get what they want is, “I’m going to get my way by using force.” Our media constantly reflects violence in our movies, television and video games. The point is, we live in a violent culture and then wonder why our children sometimes resort to violence. So which came first—the chicken or the egg? Does media promote violence or simply reflect what’s occurring in our world today? And does it really matter which came first? The fact is, our children are faced with violence—no matter how much we try to protect them—and there are times when they also resort to aggression. Why? For the same reasons that have existed for thousands of years: frustration, anger, power and control.

Related: Does your child lash out physically?

Violence within Families

For some reason, it’s much easier for society to think rationally about how to handle violence between people who aren’t related. If someone you don’t know assaults you, the police are going to be involved and there are going to be some legal charges. If you punch your boss, you’re going to be charged with assault—count on it! Even if a child is violent toward a peer, if he’s twelve years old or older, it’s possible there will be some legal consequences. But when it comes to violence in the family—especially if the aggressor is the child or teen—things get emotional and suddenly no one’s sure how to handle it. What do we do? We go to extremes as a society in our response, arresting five-year-olds on one hand yet blaming parents when a teen is violent on the other hand. Common sense just seems to fly right out the window.

The fact is that many parents of aggressive kids have very likely tried everything they can think of to handle their child’s behavior and just don’t know what else to do. Parents whose children have assaulted them feel hurt, angry, afraid, betrayed and ashamed. They may be afraid to tell anyone—even close friends or family, let alone the police—about what’s going on in the home. If a parent finally does break down and call the police, they often face a legal system that is itself confused about how to respond to youth violence in the home. One mom we know called the police when her 15-year-old son had shoved her into the wall (after he had punched a few holes in it). The officer stood in her yard, in front of her son, and said, “If you want to beat him, I’ll turn my back. Otherwise there’s nothing I can really do.” She never called the police for help again.

Related: How to talk to police when your child is physically abusive (including a free, downloadable worksheet)

It took many years for legislation to be passed regarding domestic violence between spouses/partners. For a very long time, police didn’t want to get involved in “domestic fights.” The same is true about child abuse. But education, advocacy and many, many tragedies led to a change in the way society looked at things: It’s not okay to abuse someone just because you’re married or they’re your child. But until recently, not much attention has been given to what can be done when a child abuses a parent or sibling. Society tends to discount the behavior: “Well, he’s only twelve. He’s upset. You just need to discipline him.” People often blame the parent as well, holding that parent accountable for the teen’s behavior. The fact is, your child does not have the right to violate the rights of others, just because he’s upset, angry or frustrated. As James Lehman states, “There’s no excuse for abuse—period.”

My Child’s Emotional Escalator Only Goes One Direction“Up”

The nature of childhood is to be frustrated. From the moment a baby is born, he is frustrated. He will cry and kick to get his needs met. Feed me. Change me. Hold and comfort me. He doesn’t know any other way to communicate so he uses what he’s got – his cry! We expect that. As children grow, they learn other, more effective ways of getting their needs met—by asking nicely, for example. But some kids have a really difficult time learning those skills, so when they’re frustrated or feeling any negative emotion, they fall back on the instinct to push—literally. Kids who are Oppositional-Defiant get very upset if they feel a loss of control or are frustrated in any way. Because they don’t have the ability to cope within themselves, they may resort to hitting, pushing or other negative behaviors. Children with other conditions (such as ADHD, anxiety or a history of trauma), may also fall back on the quickest and easiest way to release pent up energy that’s coursing through them as adrenaline: their instinct is to whack something.

Related: How to handle your oppositional, defiant child’s outbursts.

Physical aggression accomplishes several things: it releases that adrenaline and sometimes has other payoffs, such as a temporary feeling of being in control or power. The problem is, this payoff doesn’t last long and the consequences of aggression cause more negative emotions. It can be difficult for kids—and some adults, for that matter—to understand this, and so a cycle can develop where a child becomes frustrated, lashes out and feels temporary relief until the frustration comes back. Some adolescents who’ve moved into Conduct Disorder (a pervasive pattern of violating the rights of others) engage in physical aggression to prove they are the “Top Dog” in the home. I control things around herenot you. Don’t even try to put rules on me or this is what’ll happen.

When Your Child Crosses the Line

Most kids throw things, yell, scream or hit siblings at some point when they’re angry or frustrated. That’s typical. As a parent, you give a consequence, the child learns this behavior isn’t going to work for her, and you feel that you are in control in your own home. But sometimes, children don’t respond to a parent’s discipline or consequences. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to address your child’s aggressive behavior and you’re considering calling the police, take some time to evaluate the situation:

  1. How old is your child? In general, kids under the age of ten don’t have the cognitive ability to understand legal consequences for their behavior. Sure, they may get scared if you tell them you’re calling the police but it’s not a true comprehension of, “Oh, my behavior is assaultive and illegal and can have long-term serious consequences.” If your child is young, police and legal intervention probably isn’t the best route to take. Instead, consider getting him some serious professional help such as behavior therapy. It’s also a time to rule out, with his pediatrician, any other factors that may be contributing to his aggression (medical or allergy conditions, ADHD, anxiety, depression, etc.). If, on the other hand, your child is in the double-digits, he is more capable of understanding what it means to be held accountable—legally—for his behavior. Yes, there are some cases where 9-year-olds have been prosecuted for violent behavior and this is usually related to the next consideration:
  2. Evaluate the severity of the behavior. How severe is the aggression? Was it shoving a sibling while storming down the hall to the bedroom in a fit of anger, simply because the sibling was in the way? Or did your child get mad because the sibling had something she wanted so she deliberately punched her sister in the face? Is the aggression severe enough that serious harm could potentially result?
  3. What would happen if my child did this to someone else? When it’s our child who’s aggressive, emotions tend to cloud our decision-making. That’s when it’s good to take a step back and do the “Neighbor Test.” If my child did this to a neighbor, what would happen? What would be his consequence? Would the neighbor, who doesn’t love him, call the police or leave it to me to discipline him? On the flip side, What would I do if a neighbor kidthe same age as my childdid this to me? Is it serious enough and would I consider the child old enough to involve the police or file legal charges?
  4. Related: There's no excuse for abuse.

  5. It’s never too late. Sometimes a child’s aggressive behavior has been going on for quite some time. Parents have shared feeling guilty for letting it “get to this point,” and are embarrassed to seek help. We always tell parents it’s never too late to start setting limits and boundaries. There’s still time and there’s still hope. Your home is where your child is going to learn how to make her way in the world. It’s where she’s learning what consequences will occur for her behavior. Even a 3-year-old who sits in time-out for hitting learns, “You hit—you sit.” And that’s the way it is in life. If you are a certain age and you assault someone, you sit—in jail. That’s the way of the world. Shielding your child from these life lessons is actually a disservice. If your child has been aggressive or is making threats, be clear in what the boundary is. Tell your child, “If you become physically aggressive with me—or your siblings—that’s assault and I will call the police.” Then follow through, even though it’s possibly the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Remind yourself that holding your teen accountable is a life lesson. Also, make sure you’re modeling positive ways of handling emotions yourself. You’re trying to send the message here that aggression is not an acceptable way to cope and respond to others.
  6. Be proactive in your interactions with the police. Many parents have shared horror stories about calling the police during an incident with their child, only to get a response that (at best) was not helpful or (at worst) undermined their parental authority even more. Remember, the police are often frustrated and unsure about how to handle these incidents as well. During a calm time, make an appointment to speak with your local law enforcement (you may stop down at the station but your odds are better if you call first). Take along the downloadable police intervention worksheet we created to help you through this process. The link to the worksheet is found in the article, How to Talk to Police When Your Child is Physically Abusive. It can help you work effectively with law enforcement as a team to help hold your child accountable for his behavior and grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen.

It can be terrifying when your child is violent toward others, but you do not have to live like a prisoner in your own home. Many parents are experiencing youth violence in the home and you need to know that if things reach the point where you must seek law enforcement support there's nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn't mean you have failed as a parent—it means you are trying to help your child become a productive, law-abiding citizen who respects the rights of others.


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Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

READER'S COMMENTS

It was the hardest call I ever had to make. My teenage son crossed the line the the physical abuse on that day was an incident that had to be dealt with by someone other than me. Had he followed through with what he said he was going to do, both my other son and I would have been scared for life. Making the phone call to the police was a day I will never forget and was the worst and best day of my parenting life. We have been trying to "figure out" our son for years, ADHD but I believe it is more an ASD and I think maybe, we are finally going to get some help for him. Behavioral management, social skills, thinks that come easily to most of us do not come easily to ALL of us. The last 6 months are behind me, but not easily forgotten. I will not look back saying, " I wish I did more to help him", because every day, I advocate for my son. I cannot give up on him! The police, the judge, the family services, have all been helpful in their own way. But we the parents and the family are still the ones who have to put the work in and live our lives every day. Someday I will look back on this and see the positive results.

Comment By : Mom somewhere on the East Coast

When what we are doing doesn't work, and we have spent $ we can barely afford on a teen who doesn't care one way or another, What then???!!! We have no more funds to address this matter, so what can we do now?

Comment By : moms tired so\'s dad

I just love your information

Comment By : Dansazania

* To “moms tired so's dad”: Thank you for taking the time to ask some difficult questions. It’s understandable to feel at the end of your rope when you have done everything you can. It’s great you are reaching out for some help in dealing with what sounds like a very challenging situation. What may be most helpful in your situation is finding out if there are any programs in your area that may be able to help you and your family. A great resource that is available to you is the 2-1-1 National Helpline. This service can put you in touch with local supports that may be of benefit, some of which may operate on a low/no cost or sliding fee basis. You can reach the 2-1-1 National Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging on to www.211.org . We wish you and your family luck as you work through this difficult situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Thank you so much. Your articles have been the most helpful thing I have ever found as a parent of two boys. I appreciate REAL advice that I can actually USE without losing my mind or patience.

Comment By : TheJenReport

My son just turned 8 and he has been diagnosed with odd, adhd, and . Right now he isn't on any medication we've tried almost all of them and to many side affects. Concerta worked but had to have a mood stabilizer. Anyways now he isn't on any and at first I thought he might not need any meds but he is starting to get so angry, won't do anything asked not even brush his teeth, he is hitting himself in the head, throwing his stuff, and seems to get worse when dad gets home. I've

Comment By : need help, Michelle

When my son was violent toward me and I threatened to call the police and he said "like the last 20 times". That was when I decided it had to be done. It was escalating...then it never happened again once he went to jail. It was hard to do but at the same time necessary.

Comment By : It had to be done

* To “need help, Michelle”: We appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us. It’s great you are reaching out for help with what can only be a trying situation. In a situation such as this we would suggest discussing these concerns with your son’s pediatrician. While there are many types of medications which are used to treat ODD and ADHD, your son’s doctor is going to know how best to treat your son. We wish you luck as you and your family work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Verbally disrespectful and abusive and has left home to live with dad for a month and two weeks now. This is in violation of the joint domiciliary custody agreement, but son will be 17 in Oct. He lied to his father about me "not wanted to ever see him again and wanting him to live with his father" Sad to say, I divorced his father because his father was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive. His father is supporting his staying at his house, refuses to let him stay with me and threatens to sue me if I pursue this in court. Well, I don't have the money to pursue it in court and therapists say let it be. He will return. His grandfather also died in mid-March. He used to take him to church every week. So I am left with a cousin or two to clean out his house for sale. This has been incredibly painful when we did do some important things together, like painting my house (which will be his). I have my flaws to work on. But nothing can be worked on between us with him not here. LCSW says waiting is the hardest part. And I do have a huge amount of work to do before the house sale (June 26). I have not seen him once or heard from him. It's like he's as dead as my father. I have sent a card congratulating him on his good grades. Said I loved him in the card and two emails. Said my door is always open and I love him. This is NOT to say I can tolerate his disrespectful behavior toward me (he has ADHD) and we'd have to talk long and hard before I felt it appropriate for him to live here. But he's left all this stuff. LCSW says to box it and do with the room what I'd like. It needs painting and cleaning. Which is my plan if it rains too much for me to do outside work. But there is so much on the plate right now. And a long distance brother who seems overwhelmed by the loss of dad's home as his New Orleans family (5-6 people hotel). (but the maintenance and care of it would fall on me. I can't do it) Plus it needed much remodeling. My sadness isn't overwhelming, but seriously deep.

Comment By : aplicqqu

My son is 6 years old and nothing works with him, because he just doesn't care about the consequences. From the time he was about 2 years old it was impossible to give him consequences (time-out etc.), because he just didn't care and would NOT do it. I once put him back into his bedroom (with him kicking me and hitting me, the walls, grabbing the door jam the whole way every single time) 50 times before I finally had to give up because I was exhausted and was making absolutely no headway. It is still the same way and has been since then. Just tonight he began hitting his 4 year old sister, and when I told him to stop, told him what the consequence we be, he just continued to do it as if he didn't listen. So I put him to bed early as I told him I would, yet an hour later he is still climbing out of his bed after I have put him back in there, again as usual, kicking and screaming and laughing, about 15 times now. Right now he's at his door, and I'm at my wits end. I am losing my temper with this now, because I don't know WHAT to do anymore, as he just does not care about consequence. He's been grounded from TV, Video games, the computer, and pretty much everything except playing outside for the last 2 weeks because of this behavior, yet it STILL continues. I have even given him back things on the off chance he does what he's asked/told to do. I just don't know how to handle this as I've TRIED IT ALL and am just met with more and more violence from him and defiance.

Comment By : Orchid

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ODD Child Behavior, Violence, Abuse, Parenting, Parents, Siblings

Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com 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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