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

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Teen boy swearing at mom

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 companion article, I’ll show you what you can do to stop it.

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 aggressive behavior usually begins at a very early age.

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.

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. For these types of behaviors, I recommend my article Sassy Kids: How to Deal with a Mouthy Child.

Why Does My Child Swear at Me?

When you’re standing in your kitchen, and you’re fighting back tears and rage as your daughter is calling you “bitch,” you don’t have time to do much of anything but react. But when she’s stormed out the door or up to her room, the question arises in your mind yet again:

“Why is she like this? Why does she talk to me this way?”

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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.

Verbal Abuse is a Problem-Solving Tool

Let’s say you have a child who, for whatever reason, has poor problem-solving skills. They see the message of power in the media, in their community, and in their culture. They then learn how to use power in the form of threats and verbal abuse to replace their lack of problem-solving abilities.

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Instead of having to deal with their emotions and overcome whatever given obstacle is in their path, that child uses acting-out behavior, aggressive behavior, and abusive behavior so that somebody else has to solve the child’s problems for them. In effect, their 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

What parents don’t always understand is that chronic defiance in children develops over time. And it can start very early on. It develops as lessons are learned by the child from interactions with their parents. Yes, our kids are learning from us, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, whether we realize it or not.

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 defy, 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 to deal with 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 learn how to deal with “no” reasonably well. They learn to manage the feelings of anger and frustration of being told “no.” But when the children I’m talking about are told “no,” 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 is 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 are different, though.

Abusive Kids Have Learned to Take Advantage of Their Parents

There are certain children who figure out that their parents changed the rules and expectations out of fear of 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 losing 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 learns that if the child is indulged, they stop acting out. This is important for most parents because tantrums are stressful, frustrating, and even embarrassing. Getting the current tantrum to end becomes their first priority. And so the parents learn that if they do what their child wants, things will get easier, at least for the moment.

Likewise, the child in these situations learns that if they act out or threaten to act out, their parents won’t hold them accountable, and they will get what they want. This can happen even at 24 months old.

Over time, this back-and-forth trains parents to be more and more tolerant of inappropriate behavior and trains kids to use acting-out to get whatever they want. Ultimately, the child ends up in charge.

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 their feet makes them look ridiculous. So, the behavior evolves.

At a certain age, they learn various forms of verbal abuse, including name-calling, putting others down, and threatening. But this behavior, learned by interacting with mom and dad, begins to cause problems outside the home.

In particular, when these kids enter school, they often get in trouble with their teachers because the schools usually don’t tolerate the behavior.

And they have trouble getting along with other kids. This makes sense when you think about it. Take the sandbox, for example. The sandbox is a very common-sense 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 that works 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.

Final Thoughts

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. They 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, teaching our children problem-solving skills is a core part of our job as parents. To that end, we should teach them the lesson that tantrums, screaming, yelling, name-calling, verbal abuse, and intimidation will not solve their problems in the real world. And the best way to teach kids this lesson is to ensure that these behaviors do not work in the home. And to ensure that verbal abuse is never rewarded or indulged. Remember, verbally abusive adults usually started out as verbally abusive children.

Related content: When Kids Get Ugly: How to Stop Threats and Verbal Abuse

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (25)
  • Disheveled
    Oh my gosh this is so true and I'm so dumb, I've done it twice-1st with my kids and now my grandkids. My oldest has so taken advantage of me because of my mistake. I always thought I was a good mother but now I cry every day.
  • Worn out
    If only I’d had this advice 18 years ago, I now feel trapped by a verbally abusive son. My husband and I haven’t been able to move forward, our house has at times been wrecked. Threats of suicide stops us moving forward. He won’t get professional help. The rest ofMore the family are affected by what they have witnessed. After reading these articles I can see we are to blame in allowing our children to be put on a pedestal and giving them almost everything they could ever want in doing so we have lost all respect.
  • karen
    I experienced this behavior with my child starting at age 13 and was very volatile. It wasn't until we sought counseling and enrolled in a program that helped tremendously. Seek out a therapist who practices Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT). It is a commitment for both the childMore and parent(s), but well worth the investment of time. It tears down the old behaviors and teachings the child how to cope. It is a great practice for both parent(s) and child and life does get easier. Three years later I am proud to say our life is much calmer.
    • Disheveled
      How did you make them go. Mine refuses.
  • Fed up
    I am the girlfriend of a single dad of two teenage children one 18 the other 17. When I moved in 6 months ago I had no idea of the things I would see. Cussing, screaming, hitting, sneaking out, refusing to go to school, refusing to go toMore counseling, drugs, alcohol, self-harm, refusal of simple chores or even cleaning up after themselves as well as a parade of other behaviors from both kids. This is mostly directed at their father but I still have to clean up after them or help him with the yard, snow removal, etc. because they absolutely won't. Even when asked to do so they may agree but never follow through or simply explode into shouting and cussing. I am seriously at the end of my rope, although my child was no angel and put me through a few of these as far as the chores go, he never talked to me like this or raised a hand to me. Both kids have been institutionalized for brief periods but either professionals don't think they have that big of a problem or the kids are lying to them. I never see them ask the parent. I wish they would ask me. Can't trust them around medication either. They 18 year old with over dose on purpose on prescribed meds and they both get illegal drugs from sources they refuse to name. I have never had to deal with anything like this and frankly I am at a loss at to what to do.
  • heather
    consoling does not work mabey for some it depends on the child.they is no meds for defiance.my son couldn't had learned this from me giving him cookies when he had a tantuem.because he didn't get rewarded for bad behavior.as of now he has no be but a matress and noMore games to play,he is very defiant they need to be considering how bad this problem is today with our youth.and you cant blame a parent just because a kid doesn't want to comply.they need to remove them from the homes before things get out of control.and for some reason the police is of no service.so sad to say that.so what do we do as parents after all the resorses are over just stand by and watch our kids be distucive with no kind of help.this is a rampid thing going on and no one is taking it serious
  • MiserableFather
    There is nothing you can do. The system is rigged so if you dare tell your child to behave you will be punished. Teens get to run roughshod over parents and others. Parents have no recourse and if we talk too much kids will make any accusation they want. TheMore one choice we have is to: not have kids. I am in tears writing this but this is what we have got into.
    • Disheveled
      So sorry but I feel your pain and tears because it is so hard to get help.
  • L
    My 17 year old wrote on my bedroom wall and then moved out of my house. His father agreed.
  • lost
    My so is 40 he lived through 22 yrs of d v he witness many beating two stabbing he been to y.a. juve. And over z19 yrs in prison and drugs the last thing his father did was invoked him in a murder his xwifevput him out IMore allowed him yo come move here And all he do is verbose abuse me and treating he going to beat me up i need help
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about everything your son has been through in his life, as well as what you are experiencing right now with him in your home. While it is unfortunate that your son has witnessed so much violence in his life, he is responsible for hisMore own behavior and the consequences associated with his choices. As we often remind parents, there’s no excuse for abuse. Keep in mind that your son is an adult, and as a result, anything you decide to provide to him is a choice for you and a privilege for him. This includes having a place to live. You might find some helpful tips in another article by James Lehman, Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home. I can only imagine how challenging this must be for you, and I wish you all the best as you continue to move forward. Take care.
  • Samaula

    Hi there,

    I really need to ideas how to tackle my teenager. I feel at a loss on how to help her, she's rude , calls me names, unappreciative, she's cut me out of things. She's causing trouble with extended family telling them what a bad mother I am. I've raised her alone, along with my son with ASD, I've paid for everything, I've been a supportive, kind, strong parent. The truth is, I had an accident that left me in a wheelchair, I've rehabilitated to a part time user of one. It's like she has absolutely no respect for me, she is cold, unloving. And then she flips and is nice when she wants something. I tip toe around her as I don't want the upset. If I say anything she makes me feel like crap. I feel a stranger in my own home. She brings her boyfriend here and I'm in middle of a battleground with them. She is complex, I'm scared she's displaying narcissistic traits. It's almost as if she's getting her own way or controlling everybody she's ok? I really want to help her see. I feel it's going to cause carnage in her life if she's to carry on like this. I've wept day after day, she runs out at night, if I say no she manipulates my sister and brother in law to get her way. I no longer speak to my sisters husband as he's fed her with what a shit mum I am.

    I know that I'm not, I've given everything to being a mum. I can't change what others think because of what she says. She can only get along with one person at a time. Then when she's unhappy with that she plays them off agains another. It's a very cold unfeeling nature she has. I'm walking on egg shells and cut out of everything. She's only right when she wants something or somebody is pleasing her. Every school she's gone to people have fallen out with her. She's judgemental of others calling people scrubbers and always perceiving herself to be better than others. I am really worried. This is happening and somehow I have to try help her or her life will be one disaster after another. I'm a very selfless person. I'm kind, I do try set boundaries. I've said today about it being my home and I pay the bills and she's not to walk all over me. She just calls me a cow. Yet she can see it in herself? She would judge someone else for that but can't see it. She's just started college and already it's nothing but attention and drama surrounding her. I'm so worried about her.

    I'm halfway through a counselling diploma myself so I have tried all I can think of.

    I fear if I step back and actually stop trying as hard it will have a negative impact.

    I value my relationship with her, I've invested everything into her and she's like a spoilt brat. Atmosphere in the house can be horrendous with her.

    Feels very psychological and manipulative and I don't know where to go?

    Doesn't feel like just a stroppy teen. I'm worried it could be genetic from her father as he was cold. He left her and never had anything to do with her so I have always tried much harder. She will say hurtful things to me on how could I have a child to such a scrubber. She will say I'm a nobody as I don't know anybody who will give her a job and other parents do. It's on my mind all the time, I don't sleep. I have no idea what else I can do. I feel like she's bullying me. And that sounds ridiculous, but it feels like that. Any tips please folks?

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about the way your daughter is treating you, and I’m glad that you’re here reaching out for support. You make a great point that you cannot control how others perceive your parenting; you can only control how you choose to interact with your daughter.More Setting clear boundaries and expectations for her behavior, along with developing a culture of accountability in your relationship with your daughter, is going to be effective in addressing this pattern of behavior. Along with the second article in this series, you might find some useful tips in Scared of Your Defiant Child? Learn How to Get Back Your Parental Control. I recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Maggie
    I feel your pain, hurt and all the emotions because both my daughter and granddaughter treat me with so contempt and verbally abusive since Christmas. I've decided not to take the crap and have set boundaries that means I don't have social media, I've blocked their phone numbers and theMore only contact from them is face to face or by my landline that way I have control of the abuse starts I can put the phone down or ask them to leave my home! They will need me before I need them I'm a good mum and a great man and don't deserve that treatment. Am I happy yes because I don't let their behaviour affect my life, I've good friends and family that get me through.....
    • Kate

      I understand where you are coming from. However, saying they will need you before you need them may backfire. Those were the last words my mother spoke to me. I didn't see her the last 20 years of her life and she never saw her youngest grand child. She was abusive and a total nut job. She died old and alone.

      Don't make your kids prove you wrong.

  • nourse4

    Not sure what to say - how to start. I have an almost 18 year old - turns 18 March 16-two weeks. She is in her senior year. She is very responsible with school, work, taking hikes with friends, etc. She is horrible with me. She has been very emotional and explosive since she turned 11.

    I am her only parent...I have no partner to help me at home.

    Since her returning from a solo trip over Thanksgiving - she has been very difficult. Prior to that we were getting along pretty good for a few months (thats happened about 3 times since she was 11). I came home to find once again the chores not done (take trash cans to street, stuff like that)...I started to take the cans out behind our house - saw her and her best friend trying to break into a house that was just built on the back of the property (we are renters). I scolded them - I was astonished...they had taken a screen off and were seeing if the window was unlocked. They stopped, I sent the best friend home, and when daughter started making excuses i told her that in no way was there any acceptable reason - its breaking and entering, its illegal, etc. its wrong, end of discussion. She railed at me and became verbally abusive while her friend still here. Later that week another friend had spent the night, and again, my daughter went off on me in front of the friend (whom I had never met). I found this mortifying so I told daughter no more friends over until we can have discussion.

    She has refused to have that discussion 3 months later, claiming there is nothing to discuss.

    Since then she has been sullen, hostile, walks around with huge headphones on all the time at home, barely will speak to me about any big or small household topics - refused to be in a car with me for 45 minutes to take a hike on xmas day, the other day, right before my birthday she went off on me about lack of her favorite foods, I told her I was behind in the shopping however there is this and that in the frig - she exploded and said she was going to refuse to speak to me on my birthday.

    A few days later...two days ago...we had a conflict about my changing the court date on a traffic ticket she got on the Thanksgiving trip. I worked it so that she can go as a legal adult and I won't have to go (later learned the changed date conflicts with her AP exam which is unfortunate) - however when I was making these changes over the phone I tried also discussing this with her and she kept cursing and cursing me while I was on the phone so i just went ahead and changed it. No 5 hour trip for me to help her out if she's going to be abusive (I did not know about the AP exam then).

    She then went off on me again, called me a crazy b****, I asked her if she had any idea how abusive she was being and her response was "its not abusive if its true". I was at my limit - I got up in her face and said "your out...when you turn 18 your out of this home...I will not put up with this abuse any longer"

    Meantime, I've seen my therapist...we brainstormed a letter...requesting that she see someone with me regularly - a counselor, or she's out. But I still feel reticent. I know she will hate me even more if I kick her out while she is still in school. I am afraid too of not being invited to her graduation which would deeply hurt me.

    I just talked with a friend and had the idea to write a letter saying living together is no longer serving either one of us. I would like for us to see a third party regularly to explore ways we can live together. However - I am quite reticent to really push it and give her ultimatums...as she will always power trip out ultimatums. So I'm a bit lost, but know i cannot bear much more . (I've left out a couple of other really explosive episodes that were literally traumatic for me)

    I am a single mother, trying to re-enter work force at entry level...its a hugely stressful time for me (which I have kept completely away from her), I have had ongoing health issues which she knows about in the past but I don't bring up anymore as she just doesn't engage with me - at all (unless she wants/needs money for something)

    I just came across this forum and appreciate one tip I saw from the founder about if verbally abusive - must leave home for 24 hours, if abusive 2nd time then must leave for either 3 days or a week - I thought that sounded really good...but not sure how to even communicate this or any other consequence with her, much less enforce it. I've talked with the police. If I kick her out and she calls them (which she probably would)...they cannot enforce her leaving as she is a "long term tenant"...so I have no back up with this type of consequence unless I could get her in counseling with me and discuss it there. She acts rational with other people so she would probably agree to this consequence - not fight it - but its a very long shot if she would willingly do counseling with me.

    Thanks for listening...I know this is very long. And very hard

    • Sunny

      Nourse4,

      I don’t understand the part of your daughter being a “long term tenant”, and you may want to check with a paralegal as far as what your rights are, especially her turning 18 soon. Or you can begin looking for another place on your own. One of the things you can take control over is finances. You are paying for everything, including her speeding tickets. She needs to get a job and begin paying for her own expenses. It sounds like she has a lot of control over you. Don’t freeze—stop and ruin because you really do have a lot of options. What if this wasn’t your daughter treating you as such?

  • Rose
    Thank you for the information, my child is now shouting back at me and walking off on me when i speak. Refusing to do simply chores and using words like freaking at me and shouting it loud at me. Going to check out part two. I am a single parentMore and i need help, this is frustrating and embarrassing for me.
  • MamaCloris
    This is an impossible task for a single mother of a son when an abusive and violent non-custodial father rewards son for bad behavior with cars, cell phones, trips; meanwhile encourages skipping school and breaking the law, thinks speeding and cheating is funny, sets an example of being promiscuous, andMore makes disparaging comments about women and marriage. In my experience with domestic violence, sons idolize and mimic their father's inappropriate behavior, no matter the loving upbringing with Christian values, and importance of education and respect instilled by the mother.
    • kimy226
      MamaCloris I am dealing with same issue with my oldest daughter.I would like some articles that deal with this subject. Most articles are geared towards 2 parent families that co operate with each other. Most of us have a different reality.
  • Linda Aragon
    Im looking forward to reading the transformation program
  • Linda Aragon
    Thank you ill keep readinng maybe i can learn how to manage
  • Linda Aragon
    My child id exepiting all of these verbal and physical behaviors i need help desperatly. I can't wait for part 2 on how to handel this problem for both of us
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Linda Aragon 

      Thank you for reaching out.  You can find part 2 of

      this article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/when-kids-get-ugly-how-to-stop-threats-and-verbal-abuse-part-2/. 

      Please let us know if you have additional questions; take care.

      • Jeanmarie
        Most of the comments above are from single parents. I am married, my daughter verbally abuses me, says she hates me in front of my spouse. It feels like it is doubly cruel to have the verbal abuse and my partner do absolutely nothing. He is afraidMore of setting boundaries, because it might make her even more depressed, anxious, increase school refusal or effect another suicide attempt. This is so hard. I would be open to setting limits, not so with my spouse.
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