Over the years, as technology has evolved and material things have become more readily available, our society has developed a strong sense of “the wants.” In this modern world, we don’t like to wait for things like computers, cars and houses—delayed gratification is a thing of the past. Our children have embraced this sense of entitlement likes ducks to water; most of them have grown up with it from the time they were born. They often expect that they will get what they want (not necessarily what they need) when they want it. Their attitude seems to be one of, “What do you mean I need to earn things like a cell phone, expensive clothes or an iPod? I deserve them, simply because I’m here!” With their low frustration tolerance, poor coping skills and tendency to react impulsively, ODD kids are especially prone to the belief that parents are here to meet all of their desires. Faced with disappointment or the prospect of not getting what they want, an attack of verbal abuse (swearing, name-calling, yelling, intimidating, threatening, belittling or demeaning) may erupt that can leave parents feeling as if they’ve been hit by a tsunami and wondering what just happened.
“Would you respect someone who let you walk all over them, then gave you whatever you wanted?”
The Effects of Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse can leave you feeling worn out, devastated, hurt and afraid to assert yourself. It can lead to a sense of vulnerability because the more it’s experienced, the more we can get “used to it.” We start to tolerate being talked to by our child in ways we never thought we would. On the flip side, verbal abuse can also trigger anger. As parents we can find ourselves using the same type of verbal aggression. Either way, the effects of verbal abuse can be long-term if left unchecked.
Sometimes verbal abuse can become a cycle in the home: a family member (your child) experiences something that makes him uncomfortable (your child doesn’t get his way or doesn’t get what he wants). He responds with verbal abuse (either out of anger, frustration or in attempt to get what he wants through intimidation or bullying). The parent either doesn’t respond to the verbal abuse (allows it to go without consequence or correction) or reinforces it (gives the child what they want or continues to buy/give things to the child that are “wants” rather than “needs”). The child is satisfied until another instance arises that leads to discomfort, at which point he falls back on what worked before: verbal abuse.
If you’re in this pattern with your child, what can you do? As a parent, the best chance you have of changing this cycle of verbal abuse is at the point of your response.
How Do I Respond to My Child’s Verbal Abuse?
1. Know your boundaries. In a calm moment, think about what your boundaries are. If you’re experiencing the behaviors listed above, you’re being verbally abused. If the way your child is talking to you feels demeaning, shaming or leaves you feeling as if you’ve been attacked, it’s a good sign your boundaries are being crossed.
2. Set your boundaries. As parents, we sometimes fail to tell our kids exactly what our boundaries are: “It’s not okay for you to swear or yell at me. I’m not going to stand here and tolerate that.” As James Lehman says, “There’s no excuse for abuse”—and it’s vital that you communicate that to your child.
3. Make clear how you will respond if your boundaries are violated. Our job as a parent is to teach our kids “Real Life.” In the Real World, if someone is verbally abusive (as long as there isn’t a direct threat of harm being made), there aren’t legal consequences. The police don’t get involved. But when you verbally abuse others they aren’t usually quick to do favors for you. If you scream at your neighbor and call him names and then ask to borrow his car, he’ll probably respond with a great big “No!” Let your child know that if he or she is verbally abusive toward you, not to expect you to do any favors or “extras” (giving rides, driving through the fast food restaurant for lunch, buying designer clothes, make-up, etc). Don’t make this indefinite—instead, give your child a chance to earn back the privilege of extras. For example, if your child yells at you, then asks for a new pair of jeans, you may say, “You know, you were pretty disrespectful to me earlier. I’m not going to buy those jeans for you today. If you can talk to me and treat me respectfully for the next week, I’ll consider buying them.” Look at it this way: If you buy the jeans after being verbally abused, you’re teaching your child that it’s okay to verbally abuse others and that she’ll still get what she wants. The message is, “It’s okay to treat me this way. Even if you verbally abuse me, I’ll still do things for you.” But that’s not how the real world works. Also, kids don’t respect us when we allow them to treat us poorly and then buy them things. Would you respect someone who let you walk all over them, then gave you whatever you wanted?
4. Enforce your boundaries. Identifying and communicating boundaries to a child is only helpful if you maintain those boundaries in the face of your child’s negative behavior. This means following through with whatever you’ve told your child the consequence will be for verbal abuse. If your daughter wants a new pair of jeans after she’s just sworn at you (as in the example above), and you give them to her, you’ve just reinforced that verbal abuse is not only tolerated, but rewarded. If your son wants a ride to his friend’s house and you take him after he’s just yelled and threatened you, he’s not likely to begin respecting your boundaries.
5. Model positive boundaries. We all have moments when we lose our temper, saying things we don’t mean (or do mean, but wish we’d said more kindly – not in the heat of our emotion). Take a look at your own communication style. Are you respecting the boundaries of others—not just your child’s, but your spouse’s, your parents’, your cousin’s and all your other personal relationships? If not, put effort into communicating with others in a way that respects their boundaries. Model the same effort you hope to see from your child.
6. Know your emotional buttons. When your child is disrespectful to you, how do you tend to respond? Many parents are afraid of enforcing boundaries with their ODD or Conduct-Disordered child for fear of what will happen. Will my child respond with physical aggression or destroy my property? Will my child stop loving me or give me the silent treatment if I don’t give him what he wants? Fear can keep parents captive in the cycle of verbal abuse.
It’s also important to understand how your history may impact your life now. Some parents were verbally abused by their own parents when growing up, or are currently in relationships where boundaries are violated. This can leave you vulnerable to tolerating this type of behavior from your child. Experiencing verbal abuse can lead to being “numb” to it, so be aware of this if you’re having difficulty maintaining your boundaries with your child.
Enforcing your boundaries is one of the most important things you can do when faced with a child who is exhibiting signs of entitlement and talking to you in a way that is disrespectful or verbally abusive. Take a few moments when you’re alone, or talk with someone you truly trust who supports you about anything that might stand in your way when responding to your child.
Kids may act like they are entitled: to things, to privileges, to be angry or disrespectful when experiencing stress or frustration. That doesn’t mean that they are entitled. Just because it’s your child does not mean you lose the right to set boundaries. In fact, it’s especially important to set those boundaries with our kids. It models how to have healthy relationships with others, including with their friends, teachers, bosses, significant others—and someday, their own children.
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.