Kids Who are Verbally Abusive: The Creation of a Defiant Child
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. And it often begins as a way for kids to try to get power through controlling their parents.
In this article, I’m going to show you how your child’s abusive behavior may have evolved. In a
Related article: When Kids Get Ugly: How to Stop Threats and Verbal Abuse
It should be noted that this article is about abusive children who 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 is common and the aggressive behavior usually begins at a very early age.
This article is not about typical kids who, as a normal part of development, get mouthy at times as a reaction to stress, chaos, or adolescent changes. They can become testy in their answers to you, and their tone may become defiant or condescending, but the behavior does not cross the line into verbal abuse.
Why Does My Child Swear at Me?
When you’re standing in your kitchen, and you’re fighting back tears and rage as your son is calling you “bitch,” 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?”
When parents change their rules 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.
Kids Verbally Abuse Their Parents to Get Power
Why do kids threaten and verbally abuse their parents? One reason is that these children feel powerless. In other words, 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, and they get frustrated that they don’t know how to solve social problems appropriately.
In order to compensate for their lack of tools to deal with these uncomfortable feelings, they resort to name-calling, threats, and verbal abuse of those around them.
Culture Influences Kids to Be Abusive
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. From a very early age, kids in many communities are taught that fighting for power and control will solve their problems. And as they get older, that fight becomes a lot more intense.
Verbal Abuse is a Problem-Solving Tool
Let’s say you have a child who, for whatever reason, has poor problem-solving skills. He sees the message of power in the media, 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, his bad behavior becomes a way to solve problems. This is a very dangerous pattern for a child to develop.
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 first 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.
Children Need to Learn to Deal With “No”
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 “no.” In a 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 have a tantrum.
Parents Lower Their Expectations in the Face of Defiance
Some parents will respond to this behavior by lowering their expectations. They don’t make their child pick up after himself. Or they pick up his dirty clothes and toys themselves rather than dealing with his resistance and excuses. In fact, it easier 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. In contrast, a fight can ruin the evening. By the way, it is very common for parents to do this and, in many cases, the kids don’t end up defiant.
Abusive Kids Have Learned to Take Advantage of Their Parents
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. And these kids learn to take advantage of that fear.
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. Their tantrums are a means to get their way.
Parents Give-In to Their Kids to Prevent an Outburst
What tends to happen over time is that parents learn to read their child’s signals. They see that the behavior is escalating, and they try to do something about it before the tantrum begins.
In other words, the parents begin to lessen their demands as the child gives them cues that he’s going to soon lose control. 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. Let me be clear: 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. It’s a lesson the child learns quickly.
The Child Ends Up in Charge
During this back-and-forth process, parent and child are both learning to deal with one another. The parent, in these situations, is learning that if the child is given into, he stops acting out.
For most parents, stopping the tantrum is important because it’s embarrassing and frustrating. And so the parents are taught by the child that if they do what he wants, things will get easier. The parents are taught that if they don’t hold him accountable, even at 24 months, he’ll stop yelling and having temper tantrums.
In this way, parents learn to tolerate more inappropriate, acting-out behavior from the child. The parents learn to tolerate disrespect and defiance. And those two processes, separate though parallel, build on each other and form the child’s way of dealing with life.
The Future is Hard When the Child is in Charge
Of course, as the child gets older, tantrums take on a very different look. Older kids know that lying on the floor and screaming and kicking your feet makes them look ridiculous. And no kid wants to look ridiculous. So, the kids adapt.
At a certain age, they learn various forms of verbal abuse, including name-calling, putting others down, and threatening. This learned behavior, this learned way of problem-solving, begins to cause problems outside the home.
In particular, when these kids enter school they often have problems. The schools (hopefully) don’t tolerate the behavior and these kids get in trouble.
Verbally abusive kids also have problems getting along with other kids. This makes sense 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. Inappropriate behavior at home typically doesn’t work in social situations.
And if the other kids are forced 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 thus reinforced.
So the intimidation between that child and his parents, and between that child and his peers, can start pretty early. And when the intimidation is tolerated, the behavior is reinforced and it gets worse over time.
It is important to remember that there might be any number of reasons why a child is susceptible to being unable to handle the difficulties life presents. He may have ADHD, an undiagnosed learning disability, a chaotic family life, or just a personal tendency to be oppositional.
In the end, though, I don’t think that it matters what started the issue. What matters is that the child begins to learn how to solve his problems appropriately.
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 that 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.
How to End Verbal Abuse in Your Child
In part two of this series on kids who verbally abuse others to get their way, James explains how to end the cycle of verbal abuse from your child.