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 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 now to stop your child’s abusive behavior from continuing.
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 an early age.
When parents change their rules because their child throws a tantrum or verbally abuses them, they’re teaching their child to 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 due 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.
When you’re standing in your kitchen, and you’re fighting back tears and rage as your son or daughter is calling you “bitch,” you don’t have time to do much of anything but react. But when they’ve stormed out the door or up to their room, the question arises in your mind yet again:
“Why are they like this? Why do they talk to me this way?”
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 and disappointment, and they don’t know how to resolve conflicts appropriately.
Children may fail to develop social problem-solving skills for various reasons, including 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.
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.
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, their community, and 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.
Instead of dealing with their emotions and overcoming 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 dangerous pattern for a child to develop.
What parents don’t always understand is that chronic defiance in children develops over time. And it can start early on. It develops as the child learns lessons from interactions with their parents. Yes, our kids are learning from us, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, whether we realize it or not.
Let’s take the case of a child who was a fairly normal baby. They’ve achieved all the developmental milestones, were perhaps a little cranky at times, but generally behaved age-appropriately.
As they get a little older, they start having more problems. At about the age of five, they begin to balk at the idea of picking up after themselves, whether it’s their dirty clothes going into the hamper or toys with which they’ve been playing. If they’re told to clean things in their room, they go to the living room instead of complying. When asked to finish the task at hand, they say, “I don’t want to,” which becomes their first battle cry.
Their parents have to stand over them to get anything done. As they get older, they start to challenge and defy, their voice gets louder, and their tone gets rougher. They get 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, they will do things grudgingly, but only when adults are watching them. And as soon as they leave the room, their compliance stops.
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 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.
Some parents will respond to this behavior by lowering their expectations. They don’t make their child pick up after themselves. Or they pick up their dirty clothes and toys themselves rather than dealing with their resistance and excuses. It is easier to do it themselves, they reason.
For the parents, this can seem like a 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 common for parents to do this, and, in many cases, the kids don’t end up defiant. Abusive kids are different, though.
Some kids figure out that their parents changed the rules and expectations out of fear of resistance and acting out. These kids learn to take advantage of that fear. For these kids, capitulation on the part of the parents becomes a lesson. And the lesson is, “If I throw a tantrum and scream at my mother and father, I’m going to get my way.”
For these kids, 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.
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 they’re 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 their child throws a tantrum or verbally abuses them, they’re teaching their child to have power over them through inappropriate behavior. It’s a lesson the child learns quickly.
During this back-and-forth process, parents and children are both learning to deal with one another.
The parents in these situations learn that if they indulge the child, the child stops acting out. This is a relief for most parents because tantrums are stressful, frustrating, and even embarrassing. Getting the current tantrum to end becomes their priority. 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 the child will get what they want.
Over time, this back-and-forth trains parents to be increasingly tolerant of inappropriate behavior and trains kids to use acting-out to get whatever they want. Ultimately, the child ends up in charge.
Of course, as the child gets older, tantrums take on a 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 common-sense place. If your child is in the sandbox with other kids and yelling at them and calling them names or threatening to hurt them, they won’t play with your child anymore. That’s all there is to it. Inappropriate behavior that works at home typically doesn’t work in social situations outside the home.
And if the other kids are forced to accommodate your child, once again, they will fail to develop appropriate social skills. The lesson that your child can get their way by verbally abusing others is thus reinforced.
So the intimidation between that child and their parents, and between that child and their 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 many reasons why a child is susceptible to being unable to handle life’s difficulties. 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 their 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 as verbally abusive children.
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.