When Kids Get Ugly: How to Stop Threats and Verbal Abuse (Part 2)
In part two of this two-part series on verbal abuse, James Lehman, MSW explains what you need to start doing as a parent to stop this pattern of behavior from occurring in your home.
“You are such a b—h. I hate you! I don’t care if you say I can’t go over to Jake’s house, I’m going anyway—and you’d better not try to stop me.”
—Ben, Age 14, to His Mother
There is no excuse for abuse, physical or otherwise.
Before we discuss ways to stop verbal abuse, threats, and intimidation, I want to say that these are very difficult issues to deal with individually in your home. This type of behavior is generally a manifestation of a much bigger problem and a symptom of something more global that is going on with your child. While I’m going to try to focus attention on these individual behaviors in this article, I can’t stress enough that parents need to have a systematic way of dealing with these problems so that they don’t simply move from crisis to crisis with their child. Parents need a comprehensive structure, a set of guidelines and procedures from which they can draw guidance and strength in order to deal with these very serious things as they occur. If your child doesn’t want to go to school, resists getting dressed, has behavior problems in school and at home, and is threatening you and being verbally abusive, know that his whole level of functioning is off: being abusive to his siblings or to you is only one piece of it.
Children Who Threaten, Intimidate and Verbally Abuse Family Members
There is no excuse for abuse, physical or otherwise. That rule should be written on an index card with a black magic marker and posted on your refrigerator. The message to your child is, “If you’re abusive, there’s no excuse. I don’t want to hear what the reason was. There’s no justification for it. There’s nobody you can blame. You are responsible and accountable for your abusive behavior. And by ‘responsible,’ I mean it’s nobody else’s fault, and by ‘accountable’ I mean there will be consequences.”
Many siblings will tease each other excessively from time to time and even have physical fights with each other. There’s a difference between that level of rivalry, and a situation where one sibling is picking on, demoralizing and targeting a younger sibling as an object of abuse. These are two very different situations and neither one should be taken lightly. But certainly, when you see a situation where there’s clearly a perpetrator and clearly a victim, it has to be dealt with in the strictest, sternest ways.
Remember this: if you have an older child who’s abusive, and you let that child get away with this kind of behavior, your younger child will start to realize that his sibling is more powerful than you are as a parent. The younger child will begin to think that you can’t keep him safe from his older sibling. Once he realizes that, the next thing he’ll start to do is give in to his older sibling. You’ll hear the oldest sibling say abusive, foul things and then you’ll hear the younger kid say, “I’m sorry.” These are very powerful, damaging things to be happening in the family and should not be taken lightly. As far as the nature of the consequences or the nature of the limits set in this situation, again, that belongs to a more comprehensive discussion about how families should run and how parents should manage their families using a comprehensive structure.
When your child abuses anyone in your family, tell him, “There’s no excuse for abuse. You’re not allowed to abuse people. Go to your room.” Be prepared for him to blame the victim, because that’s what abusive people do; it’s an easy way out. Abusive people say, “I wouldn’t have abused you but you…” and fill in the blank. So your child might say, “I’m sorry I hit you, but you yelled at me.” What they’re really saying is, “I’m sorry I hit you, but it was your fault.” And if you listen to the apologies of many of these abusive kids, that’s what you get. “I’m sorry, but you wouldn’t give me a cookie.” “I’m sorry I called her a name but she wouldn’t let me play the video game.” What they’re constantly saying is, “I’m sorry, but it’s your fault,” and it absolutely does not mean they’re sorry. It means, “I’m sorry, but it’s not my responsibility.” And when a child doesn’t take responsibility for a certain behavior, they see no reason to change it. They’ve just learned to mimic the words. It becomes another false social construct that comes out of their mouths without any meaning or understanding behind it whatsoever—and if you buy into it, you’re allowing that child to continue his abusive behavior and power thrusting.
Having Problem-Solving Conversations with Your Child
When children use abusive behavior to solve their problems, it’s important that they learn a way to replace that behavior with healthier problem-solving skills. It’s just not enough to point out—and give consequences for—that abusive behavior. It’s also important to help your child replace their inappropriate behavior with something that will help him solve the problem at hand without getting into trouble or hurting others. Here’s the bottom line: if we don’t help kids replace their inappropriate behavior with something healthier, they’re going to fall back on the inappropriate behavior every time. That’s their default program.
Parents also should develop ways to have problem-solving conversations with their kids. So the next time they’re faced with a similar situation, they need to ask themselves what they can do to solve the problem differently, besides hurting someone’s feelings, being abusive or threatening. For instance, the next time your verbally abusive daughter calls her younger brother names and threatens him in order to get him off the computer, you should not only correct her, but later, have a conversation with her when things calm down. That conversation should be, “The next time you’re frustrated when you want to get on the computer, what can you do differently so you don’t get into trouble and get more consequences. What can you do to get more rewards?”
I think the focus should be on how the abusive child should avoid getting into trouble and being given consequences, rather than on how they should not hurt their brother. Abusive people don’t care about their victims. I don’t think we should be appealing to their sense of empathy and humanity. I think we should be appealing to their self-interest, because self-interest is a very powerful motivator. Look at it this way: if they had empathy or sympathy, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
Intimidation and Threats of Violence
If a parent is frightened about physically destructive behavior, destruction of property, or threats of violence, I want to be very clear about this: Call the police. It’s very simple. “He threatened to hurt me and I don’t feel safe with him here tonight.” What will the police do? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, your child will know that you’re not just going to sit around and be bullied. It’s not what the police do—it’s what your child will understand. So call the police if you think you’re in danger. Call the police if you’re assaulted. And keep calling the police until they do something.
If you’re frightened, make sure you don’t have weapons in the house. Make sure you don’t have violence in the house. Get rid of the violent music. If your child threatens violence or gets violent, that music should be gone, as well as video games that promote violence. If you have an abusive child in the house, movies, video games and music that glorify or glamorize violence should be banned. That’s one of the things your child should lose the right to immediately. And you can say, “You no longer have the right to listen to that kind of music because you weren’t able to manage it.”
You should also call your state’s Department of Child Services and say, “My son is threatening me,” or “My son hit me.” Don’t be afraid they’re going to take your child. They don’t want to take financial or legal responsibility for him, unless he’s in danger. The idea is that you’re making noise; you’re creating a paper trail. You’re letting people know that these things are happening from an early age, because if the day comes when your child hurts somebody, your goal is that he will be held accountable.
Parents who are afraid of their kids getting locked up for this kind of behavior do not understand the juvenile justice system whatsoever. The wheels of justice turn excruciatingly slowly. Nobody wants to lock your child up. In fact, if your child has severe behavior problems and behaves criminally at home, you’ll be lucky if somebody decides to lock him up. If he’s so out of control that the authorities hold him responsible by locking him up, do not fear that a bit. The juvenile justice system and the child welfare system are overwhelmed and under-funded. But we use them because if your kid does change, fine. If the child doesn’t change, then there’s a body of evidence that says, “This kid has been out of control for a long time.” And you’re going to want that body of evidence sometime, because believe me, if you’re talking to your child’s probation officer when he’s 15 or 16, you’ll be glad you have three years where you’ve documented what this kid has put you through.
If your child is starting to threaten you or abuse you verbally, is there still hope to turn his or her behavior around, even if he’s a teen? There’s always hope. But hope without action and change is pointless. If you want your child to turn their behavior around without them making some very fundamental changes right away, I don’t hold out much hope for that. If you have a middle- to older-aged teen and they’re threatening you, being verbally abusive and intimidating, and you’re not able or willing to take some risks, I personally don’t think there will be any turning around. Nothing changes if nothing changes. The sooner you start, the better chance you have of changing this behavioral dynamic, but it will mean changing your whole family dynamic. In other words, if you want to change the way your child is doing things, you’re going to have to change the way your whole family is doing things.