In previous posts we discussed the role of guilt in a parent’s response to verbal abuse. Today we’ll look at anger. While guilt can be hard to detect, anger is unmistakable. It isn’t a subtle feeling that creeps in the shadows. It can be overwhelming and hard to control. Some parents tend to blow up and return the verbal abuse, which reinforces the problem. Others, fearing their anger, may hold it inside and fail to address the issue.
In today’s post, we’ll explore a healthier solution.
Before we continue, I must warn that if you feel that your teen will physically hurt you, seek safety immediately. Do not follow the suggestions in this post. They apply only to verbal conflicts when you feel physically safe.
Although the anger problem is easy to see, it’s not so easy to solve. How do we step back, stay rational, and do the right thing? That’s the challenge.
When confronting verbal abuse, compassion is the antidote to anger. I like the image of an elevator. Think of your mind as an apartment building. Anger is the basement, and compassion is the penthouse. If you can just get to an elevator, you can rise above anger and gain perspective. You can take a wider view of the conflict and your part in it.
How do you build this mental “elevator”? Below I will offer a formula that has worked for some parents. While there are no cookie-cutter solutions, it’s an approach that is easy to follow for now until you create your own formula.
This approach is a series of statements that you tell yourself. As you’ll see, they are arranged in three phases. Today we’ll discuss the first one, What to Do Right Away.
I arranged the statements into three easy-to-remember acronyms.
Note: I know these aren’t the most clever acronyms. If you can think of better ones, please submit them below! Win two free coaching sessions if your ideas are selected.
1. WHAT TO DO RIGHT AWAY – DETACHING FROM ANGER
O I will OBSERVE, not react
C I will CLARIFY the verbal abuse and its seriousness
E I will clearly state my EXPECTATIONS
A I will AVOID further conflict by leaving the scene
N I will say NOTHING MORE until I feel ready
2. WHAT TO REMEMBER – FINDING COMPASSION
P I will have PATIENCE – (s)he’s still a developing child
R I will dwell on the REAL, not the ideal
I I AM a teacher, not a foe
D (S)he is DEAR to me
E What is (s)he EXPERIENCING?
3. WHAT TO DO LATER – DEMONSTRATING COMPASSION
T I’ll choose the best TIME to talk
A I’ll explain acceptable ALTERNATIVES
L I’ll LISTEN to understand what’s beneath the hostility
K I’ll respond with KINDNESS
S I’ll insist that we find a SOLUTION
WHAT TO DO RIGHT AWAY
You may not like my first suggestion, but here it is: Memorize the three steps until you know them through and through! Chisel them into your mind until you can recall them in your sleep – or in the heat of bristling anger. That’s your first assignment.
Today we’ll discuss the first step, O-C-E-A-N.
O – I will OBSERVE, not react.
Above all, you need to stay calm – at least for a minute or two. How on Earth can you do that when you are hopping mad? You’re so caught up in the fury! Your impulse is to be drawn in, to engage in the conflict that is driving all rationality from your mind. How do you resist that natural human impulse?
A very efficient way to disengage is to click into “observer mode.” The big challenge here is remembering to “click” before you react. That’s why you need to memorize “O-C-E-A-N” right now (and why it’s your first assignment in this post) You don’t want to be a participant in this struggle. You might imagine that your teen is a character in a movie and that you are in the audience. Look your teen in the eye until (s)he has finished talking. Just watch.
Of course you’ll have feelings, just as you would when you watch in a movie. But you don’t have to involve yourself in the drama on the screen. You are separated by the “fourth wall.” Your teen may be screaming at you, but you can simply take mental notes as a movie critic would do.
You can also observe yourself and your feelings. You might note that “Wow, I feel very angry.” By observing the situation as it unfolds, you have escaped from overwhelming emotions into the cooler realm of thoughts. From the thoughtful realm, you can better manage your actions.
Now you may be thinking, “WHAT? I’m just supposed to sit there and passively let my teen insult me?” No, absolutely not. You will respond, but you won’t react. You will stay in control of yourself and remember your true purpose — to set a firm, clear boundary on verbal abuse. To teach right from wrong.
C – I will CLARIFY the verbal abuse and its seriousness.
Your teen needs to know exactly what (s)he said that was abusive. (S)he needs a reality check. (S)he needs to hear the abusive words “played back” and realize how terrible they sound. Also, (s)he needs to know that you don’t take such words lightly. You want to (a) reflect the harsh words as if you were holding a mirror and (b) let your child know that this is a serious matter.
This reflection involves a single statement: “You just said “__________.” Plain and simple. Then add “I take that kind of language very seriously.”
E – I will clearly state my EXPECTATIONS.
Now add one more brief statement. This will instruct your teen on what you expect: “I expect ______.” Say only this one statement and nothing more. It is too soon for explanation and discussion. You need to contain your temper. The longer you talk, the more likely you are to lose it! Your teen also needs time to process what (s)he has said and how you responded. Because their brains are still developing, teens emote quickly but think more slowly than adults. The signals from the “executive center” (pre-frontal cortex) of their brains cannot move as quickly because the “wiring” (white matter connections) is not fully mature. They need more time to think than you may realize.
So, state your expectation as simply and briefly as possible. Don’t be drawn back into the conflict. Keep your distance as an observer.
Here are a few examples of short expectation statements:
“I expect this to be the last time you ever insult me.”
“I expect you to treat other people as you would like to be treated.”
“I expect civility in my home.”
Here’s your next assignment: Compose your expectation statement today. Memorize it. You want to state your expectation clearly and with confidence. You want it to say exactly what you mean in the clearest way possible. Get it just right, and go over it many times in your mind.
A I will AVOID further conflict by leaving the scene
Now announce that “We will discuss this later.” Leave the scene and go somewhere where you can calm down and think. If it calms you to cry, punch a bag, write in a journal or take a nap, do so if you can. Take all the time you need. It’s you, not your teenager, who is in charge.
If you’d prefer that your teen leave the scene, you can simply say “We will discuss this later. It’s best that you leave the room now.” Say this only if you believe your teen will comply. Otherwise you will just invite further conflict. If your teen ignores the dismissal, you may seem ineffective and powerless. You want to feel and project that you’re in charge. However, the most important result is that you separate from your teen until you can calm down.
N I will say NOTHING MORE until I feel ready.
You might have what I call a “terrier teen” who insists on winning an argument. These kids sink their teeth into a conflict and won’t let go. They are determined to have a tug-of-war. If your terrier teen insists on prolonging the conflict, ignore any attempt to draw you in — simply refuse to say anything. Just calmly walk away to a private place (even if it’s the bathroom). Don’t slam the door, run out of the room, or display any emotion at all. Just walk away as you normally walk.
You have stated that you will discuss the incident later. That’s all you need to say. As I mentioned, your teen needs some time to reflect on what happened. So do you.
Silently observe your teen until (s)he has finished talking.
Say “You just said _________. I take that kind of language very seriously.”
Say the expectation statement. “I expect ____________.”
Say “We will discuss this later.” Leave the scene or dismiss your teen: “You are dismissed.”
Find a private place where you can release your anger and think.
Now it’s time to go have a private talk with yourself. That brings us to Phase 2, which we’ll discuss in my next post. In the meanwhile, remember those two assignments!