To recap our last discussion, if you don’t know in your heart that your teen has crossed a line — if you instead question whether you might deserve abuse — you will convey confusion, not conviction. If you feel an uncomfortable sense of guilt, that discomfort will weaken your resolve. It will prevent you from seeing the situation clearly and acting with confidence. Your words will probably have a hollow ring. Your actions will probably seem defensive, not authoritative. You will probably not convey a clear, instructive message.
Why? Because you have retreated into your own head to ask yourself questions: “Have I done something to deserve this?” “Am I a bad parent?” “Is what (s)he says really true?” “Have I failed?” “How could I let things get to this point?”
Notice that these are all internal, contemplative questions. You have stepped outside of the immediate situation to follow your private apprehension and fear. You are not engaged with your child, and you are not managing the situation at hand. Instead, you are engaged with your guilt..
You are a teacher.
A large part of any parent’s job is teaching. It is their role to teach their kids right from wrong, acceptable from unacceptable, advisable from inadvisable. To do this, they must inform their kids what the standards, expectations and boundaries are. If they don’t set these clearly, the kids (especially the teenagers) will have to run repeated tests to find where the boundaries are weak. They may stretch norms and break rules just to see what will happen. Remember how, as babies, they liked to drop things? They were learning about gravity. Your teens are learning about civility.
You can think of verbal abuse as a kind of experiment. Most kids know that verbal abuse is not acceptable behavior — unless it is normal in their households or the shows they watch. They are actually counting on you to affirm what their conscience already tells them. They are probably not aware they want you to define a boundary. But it is your job to do so. Just as a teacher in a classroom must impose order so that students can learn, you must impose order by setting clear rules. “No verbal abuse” should be near the top of your list of rules.
When your kids experiment by swearing at you or calling your names, they may have lost emotional control. (I’ll discuss that topic in a later post.) But make no mistake. They will notice what happens when they don’t control themselves. They will feel how much power they wield in that situation. If they feel more powerful after verbally abusing you, and if it feels good, they’ll be tempted to do it again. Worse, they may begin to feel entitled to lose control and vent their bad feelings on you and others, as well. At the same time, on a deeper level, they’ll probably feel frightened by the lack of a boundary. It may feel like driving on a highway with no lines. Teens count on adults to provide structure and guidance. That is your job as a parent and teacher.
You are on duty.
So, when your teen attacks you verbally, remember that you are not on trial. You are on duty! As parenting expert Susan Stiffelman says so eloquently, your children need you to be the captain of their ship, steering them safely into adulthood. Your kids trust you to do that; they don’t know the ropes. No matter how smart they are, and no matter how loudly they claim that they don’t need you, do you really believe that? Do they?
As captain, you must stay at the helm, especially in a storm. Your kids need to know that you will do your duty as a parent: establishing clear, appropriate boundaries for their behavior. In that way, you help them feel secure. They won’t need to guess what the boundaries are, and they won’t need to test your resolve. They can trust you to teach them what will and won’t work.
Well, I’ve now used three different metaphors to describe this situation. I’ve said that you’re a teacher, a ship’s captain, and an athlete keeping your head in the game! What would my high school English teacher say? “Good writers don’t mix metaphors.” But I’ve decided to do it anyway so you’ll have a choice of metaphors. Select the one that works best for you. Keep it in mind, and apply it next time your teen crosses the line.
In summary, understand your job. Think very hard about what you want to teach your kids, and what they truly need to know. Sit down every day and contemplate what you believe is right, what you believe is best for your kids, and what kind of people you want to raise. Be aware of any guilt feelings you have. Try to dismiss them or at least postpone them. Right now it’s time to focus on your values and convictions. It’s time to make a lesson plan.
I know, this is all much easier said than done. Guilt doesn’t always disperse at your command. So I’ll do a little coaching, since that’s my job. In my next post, I’ll walk you through my “Guiltbusters” exercise. It’s pretty easy, and I think it will help.
All my best,