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

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Teen boy swearing at his mom

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.

Before we discuss ways to stop verbal abuse, threats, and intimidation, I want to say that these are very difficult issues to deal with. This type of behavior is generally a manifestation of a much bigger problem 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.

There’s No Excuse for Abuse

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.”

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Sibling Abuse

Many siblings will tease each other excessively from time to time and even have physical fights with each other. This is normal sibling rivalry. What’s not normal and not acceptable is the situation where one sibling is picking on, demoralizing, and targeting a younger or weaker sibling. This is abuse and should not be taken lightly. And 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 and 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.”

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Abusive Kids Blame the Victim

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 him, but he yelled at me.”
  • “I’m sorry I called her a name, but she wouldn’t let me play the video game.”

What they’re really saying is, “I’m sorry, but it was your fault.” And it means that they are not actually sorry. It means, “I’m sorry, but it’s not my responsibility.” And when kids don’t take responsibility for their behavior, they see no reason to change it.

They’ve just learned to mimic the words “I’m sorry,” but they are not sorry at all. 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 excuses.

Having Problem-Solving Conversations with Your Child

Kids use abusive behavior to solve problems and to get what they want. Therefore, it’s important that kids learn to replace abusive behavior with healthier and acceptable problem-solving skills.

It’s just not enough to point out and give consequences for abusive behavior. You also have to help your child replace their inappropriate behavior with something that will help him solve his problems 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 keep using the inappropriate behavior. Because that’s all they know.

This is why parents need to have problem-solving conversations with their kids, so the next time their child is faced with a similar situation, their child can ask themselves what they can do to solve the problem differently. Their child will begin to consider options 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, you should not only correct her, but also have a conversation with her when things calm down. That conversation should be:

“The next time you’re frustrated, what can you do differently so you don’t get into trouble and get more consequences. What can you do to get more rewards?”

Focus on Consequences and Rewards, Not Empathy

Notice that the focus of the conversation is on avoiding consequences and getting rewards. Also, notice what the conversation is not about. It’s not about why hurting her brother is wrong. And it’s not about how badly it makes her brother feel. Parents need to understand that it doesn’t work to appeal to a sense of empathy or humanity if those traits have not yet been developed. After all, abusive people don’t really care about their victims.

Instead, I think we should be appealing to their self-interest, because self-interest is much more effective in stopping abuse. Look at it this way: if they had empathy or sympathy, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, we want our kids to learn empathy, but the goal is to stop the abusive behavior regardless of whether your child feels empathy.

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. I know that this can be difficult for many parents, but it needs to be an option. Tell the police:

“He threatened to hurt me and I don’t feel safe with him here tonight.”

What will the police do? It’s hard to say because it depends on the officer and the department. But I’ll tell you, your child will now 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. Until your child stops hurting you or your property.

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, then 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.”

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Department of Child Services

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. And you’re letting people know that these things are happening from an early age. You are doing all this 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. 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 evidence because 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.

Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes

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 behavior. 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.

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, 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.

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