My teen is abusive with me

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Question

My teen can’t argue without being abusive, what can I do?

Answer

Teens are so driven by the immediate they will frequently use every means available to get their way. Sometimes their desires are so urgent they will bypass all standard forms of argument and go straight to emotional blackmail. The subconscious thinking is: “If I can hurt mum enough, she will get sick of it and just give in.”

There are reasons teens are so extreme when angry (and get angry quickly with parents)

Powerlessness

While they might like to think otherwise, teens know that in the end their parents control both the money available to them and how they use their time and space. There is very little they can do about that because of their personal situation (they are living at home), the law (they usually can’t leave) and societal expectations (most of their peers are in the same boat). Their verbal lashing out is an attempt to exercise power.

Security

Because you are his parent he has confidence that no matter how unpleasant he is you won’t desert him. Consequently his words and actions are not moderated by the factor that softens most social interactions: fear that you will find him so offensive that you leave.

Frustration

Quite possibly, deep down, she knows that you are right, but that doesn’t make the decision you are making for her any more palatable. Rather, she is facing an inner conflict where her head is telling her something her heart doesn’t want to hear. Sometimes the abuse you receive is not directed at you at all, it is simply the venting of her inner frustration.

Impulsiveness

Acting on a whim and treating every experience as a once in a lifetime opportunity is as much a normal part of adolescence as pimples and growth spurts. The teen brain is not good at thinking things through. Your teen is loud, aggressive and hurtful – basically irrational – because the thoughts he or she is defending have come from raw emotion not carefully considered thought.

Short term responses
  • Don’t return fire – it will only escalate the problem. Chose to not speak to your child until he or she calms down and speaks civilly.
  • Don’t panic – if your child is arguing with you it means your child knows it needs your permission (or money) to proceed. You still have the upper hand.
  •  Seek a compromise. It is easy to get into the habit of saying no for no’s sake. A small compromise can often allow the child to experience something of the wish without breaking parental boundaries.
  • Let the moment pass. If you absolutely cannot bend then wait till your teen has calmed down; then talk about your reasons, not his or her behaviour. You may reactivate the argument but if you are reasonable over time your child will be more accepting.
Long term responses

The following strategies will help minimise the number of occasions you have this experience (the earlier you start this process the more successful it will be)

Anticipate – wherever possible lay the ground work for a situation a good two years before the situation arises, it is very difficult to wind freedoms back. Behaviours and freedoms that are cute at 10 can be very frightening at 14. The current trend is to rush kids into maturity, I believe a safer way is to preserve innocence as long as possible.

Consistency – a huge benefit found in thinking your responses and values through ahead of time is that you are able to establish a set or responses that are consistent from one day to the next and one issue to the next. The quickest way to undermine credibility is to create in your kid the sense that they’re never quite sure how you’re going to react.

Balance – Prove yourself to be reasonable by developing a habit of being ahead of your teen in some areas of freedom. A great way to make unpleasant decisions palatable for your teens is when they know that you are also inclined to surprise them by the slack you can sometimes cut them.

Example – As with everything in parenting, the most powerful influence is example. If children see their parents handling disagreements, conflicts and argument calmly and with mutual respect they are very likely to have a similar approach.

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