Jennifer’s son began hitting her when he was 14 years old. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she told us. “If anyone else had hit me, I would have called the police. But this was my son! I didn’t want him arrested but I wanted the abuse to stop. I was ashamed to admit to my family what was going on and I knew they would take action, even if I didn’t. The situation was intolerable but I couldn’t take action. I felt trapped, like I was in a car without brakes.”
“Parental abuse can leave a person feeling embarrassed, ashamed, angry and terrified. These emotions are what we call ‘Parent Paralyzers’: feelings that are so intense they overtake logic and reason.”
Parental abuse occurs when a child – usually a teenager but sometimes a pre-teen – engages in behavior that is abusive toward a parent. It may be a one-time incident or it may escalate in frequency, even to the point of a daily occurrence. It can range from verbal abuse (calling a parent foul names, threatening a parent) and intimidation to outright physical assault. If you are the target of parental abuse, you’re probably living in fear every day of what your teen will do next, always waiting for what will set off a volcanic eruption. In other cases, the abusive behavior may occur with no emotion: a quiet, deliberate act of harm used by a teen to maintain power over a parent.
Parental abuse can leave a person feeling embarrassed, ashamed, angry and terrified. These emotions are what we call “Parent Paralyzers”: feelings that are so intense they overtake logic and reason. Feelings that leave us questioning ourselves, trapped in uncertainty about what direction to take. If you’re in this situation with your child, know that it doesn’t mean you are weak or not intelligent. In fact, many parents who are the victim of a teen’s abuse at home are successful in the workplace or other settings.
Is My Child’s Behavior Abusive?
If your child or teen is harming you physically, you are being abused. It’s that plain and simple. One man raising his granddaughter admitted, “I knew her behavior was unacceptable; she would throw things whenever she got mad and one time she hit me in the chest with an ashtray. After that, she started throwing things with the intention of hitting me. I just never thought of it as abusive.” No one wants to believe their child could be abusive. Emotion can “muddy the waters,” make us question whether or not things are as “bad” as our gut tells us they are. Ask yourself: if your child was anyone else – a neighbor, a co-worker – would you consider his or her actions to be assaultive or abusive? This will help you take the emotion out of evaluating a situation.
Warning Signs of Parental Abuse
Sometimes a situation escalates without us even realizing it. The following are some potential warning signs that a child’s behavior is bordering on abusive:
- Feeling Intimidated. It’s normal to feel your child is pushing boundaries to get what he wants. Kids will ask over and over for something they want, until a parent can finally snap, “I told you no!” What’s not typical is to feel that if you don’t give your child what she wants, she will retaliate in a way that is harmful to you. Intimidation is a way of frightening someone else into doing something. It may be the words, the tone of voice or even just a look.
- Extreme Defiance. Yes, kids can be defiant, even your typical child. But when it reaches a point that your child has no respect for your authority as a parent, outright defying the rules of your home with no fear or concern of consequences, it’s a potential sign of escalation. Many kids can be defiant without violence; however, extreme oppositional behavior can be part of a more serious picture.
- An Escalating Pattern of Violence. Kids get angry, slam doors, throw things in a fit on the floor in their room. You can probably remember a time when you were growing up that you got mad and smashed something. But you learned that this behavior didn’t get you what you wanted and – in fact – may result in you having to re-buy things you valued. On the other hand, if a child or teen’s behavior continues to escalate to the point of destroying property, punching walls, shoving, hitting things near you or throwing things that “almost” hit you, making verbal threats or violating your personal boundaries (“getting in your space”), this is a pattern that may indicate abusive behavior.
Why Is My Teen Abusive?
When a child or teen turns abusive, it’s natural to ask “Why?” Many parents feel guilty, blaming themselves for their teen’s behavior: If I was a better parent, my child wouldn’t be acting this way. The truth is, there can be several underlying factors contributing to parental abuse including poor boundaries, substance abuse (by either a parent or child), poor coping skills, underlying psychological conditions (such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder) and learned behavior. Some kids behave violently due to poor coping skills. Others are more deliberate and enjoy the power that comes from intimidating a parent. Remember: we can try to understand what’s going on in any situation, but there is no excuse or rationale for abusive behavior.
Responding to Parental Abuse
Aggressive and abusive behavior is not a part of typical childhood or adolescence. It’s not a stage that your teen will “grow out of” if you ignore it. If you’re dealing with parental abuse in your home, your child is violating the rights of others. It doesn’t matter that it’s his parent’s rights; that doesn’t make it any less serious or illegal. Your home is the place where your child will learn how to interact in the world. He is learning what’s acceptable…and what’s not. He’s learning about consequences for behavior and accountability. One of the hardest tasks a parent can be faced with is responding to their own child’s aggression or abuse. It’s natural to feel torn. On one hand, it’s instinctual to protect your child. On the other hand, nothing can push a parent’s buttons of anger, disappointment and hurt like a child’s abusive behavior. Some days you may feel emotionally stronger than others. Only you can decide what you’re able to follow through with at any given time. Here are some suggestions:
1. Clearly Communicate Boundaries. Make sure your child understands your physical and emotional boundaries. You may need to clearly state: “It’s not okay to yell or push or hit me.” If you’ve said this to your child in the past, but allowed her to cross those boundaries in the past without consequence, she’s gotten mixed messages. Your words have told her one set of boundaries but your actions (by accepting being yelled at or hit) have communicated another set of boundaries. Make sure your non-verbal communication (what you do) matches your verbal communication (what you say).
2. Clearly Communicate Consequences For Abusive Behavior. Tell your teen: “If you hit me, throw something at me or otherwise hurt me physically, that’s called domestic violence and assault. Even though I love you, I will call you the police and you will be held accountable for your behavior.” Then – again – make sure your actions match your words. If you don’t think you can follow through with contacting the police – don’t say you will. This will only reinforce to your child that you make “threats” that won’t be carried out. You may choose to provide other consequences, other than legal, that you enforce. If a friend physically assaulted you, would you let her borrow your car or give her spending money the next day? Probably not.
3. Contact the Authorities. We don’t say this lightly or without understanding how difficult this can be for a parent. Some parents are outraged at a teen’s abusive behavior and react: “I’ve got no problem calling the cops on my kid if he ever raises a hand to me!” Other parents struggle, worrying about the long term consequences of contacting the police or unable to handle the thought of their child facing charges. Remember: if your teen is behaving violently toward you now, there is the risk that this will generalize to his future relationships with a spouse, his own children or other members of society. You are not doing him a favor by allowing him to engage in this behavior without consequence. (For more on this, read How to Talk to Police When Your Child is Physically Abusive.)
4. Get Support. Parental abuse is a form of domestic violence. It’s a serious issue and needs immediate attention and intervention. Domestic violence has traditionally been characterized by silence. As hard as it is, break that silence. Get support from family or friends – anyone you think will be supportive. If your natural supports tend to judge you and you’re afraid it will only make the situation worse, contact a local domestic violence hotline, counselor or support group. For support and resources in your community, you can also call 2-1-1 or visit 211.org, a free and confidential service through the United Way.
The road to a healthier relationship with your child will very likely take time. There’s no shortcut or quick fix. It starts with acknowledgement of the issue and accountability. If you’re facing this issue in your family, we wish you strength and empowerment.
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.