Do You Suffer Verbal Abuse from Your Teen? Finding Compassion

In my previous post, we looked at how to detach from anger triggered by your teen’s verbal abuse.  I suggested a formula that might help you respond calmly, wisely, kindly and firmly.  As I explained, you can use this formula as a stop-gap measure until you have a chance to create your own.  Just to review, here’s the formula:



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



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?



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


In the last post, we discussed “What to Do Right Away.”  I strongly suggested that you memorize the O-C-E-A-N formula backwards and forwards so that you can recall it instantly!  That will take some practice.  The next step, “What to Remember – Finding Compassion,” is much easier because you will be by yourself during this phase of the process.  You will have retreated to a place where you feel comfortable.  There you can keep the P-R-I-D-E statements in a notebook.  You can take them out and review them, so you won’t need to rely on your memory.  You can just follow the statements and think about each of them as you calm down.  They are designed to help you enter your mental “elevator” and make the climb from anger to compassion.  Today’s post will suggest five ways to do that.

Let’s review the P-R-I-D-E statements:

P – Remind yourself to have patience.  Remember that your child is making one of the most challenging transitions that he or she will ever make: the evolution from childhood to adolescence.  While your son or daughter may be starting to look mature, their brains have a long way to develop before they have what adults call “common sense.”  They are just beginning to learn some control over their emotions.  They have a very poor sense of time.  There is an anatomical reason for these difficulties.  Brain scans have shown that a person’s pre-frontal cortex (the brain’s “executive center”) takes more than twenty years to develop fully!  Brain immaturity and hormonal changes account for many things that worry us most about teens:   Catastrophizing.  Exaggerating.  Taking serious risks without weighing the consequences.  Bouncing from one mood to another.  Making unfair accusations.  Becoming quickly addicted to drugs or alcohol.  All in all, demonstrating bad judgment and lack of control. In addition to brain immaturity, teens are highly sensitive to stress.  There is an anatomical reason for that, as well.  (I highly recommend the book The Teenage Brain by Dr. Frances E. Jensen.  Dr. Jensen explains how brain development leads to typical teen behavior. If you have time to read only one book this month, read this one! It will make parenting so much easier.)


A teen’s anger and hostility can signal deep anxieties.  As we know, adolescents grapple with several core issues:  Identity (“What kind of person am I?”)   Belonging (“Will people accept or reject me?”).  Destiny  (“Will I fail or succeed in life?”)  Many strange behaviors can be traced to these fundamental questions.   Beneath your teen’s hostility may be a dark sea of self-doubt and worry about one of these core issues or perhaps a more specific, personal issue.

While you must take a stand against verbal abuse, for your teen’s own good – it will help you to put his or her behavior in context.  Remember that this person is your beloved child, not an adversary and not a stranger.  Just as you were patient with your child in other life transitions (from infant to toddler, from toddler to young child, from young child to pre-teen), it’s time to be patient now.  This transition may not be as charming as earlier ones, but your teen needs your love and your help just as much as ever.  (S)he may not be finding solid support from anyone else. That lack of support may be deepening the hostility. 

When your son or daughter insults you or swears at you, remind yourself that he or she is in a very confusing time of life.  Even if you suspect that the verbal abuse is “copied” behavior that your teen has picked up from watching others, such mimicking is itself a kind of confusion.  When your teen “tries on” nasty behavior, it can be a way of exploring the questions “What kind of person am I?” and “Will I be accepted or rejected?”   Today, and every day, make sure your teenager knows (1) that you accept him or her as someone you love forever, unconditionally, and (2) because you want to build a loving, trusting relationship, you can’t and don’t accept any form of verbal abuse.  That commitment requires you to summon patience right now, and in the days ahead. 


R –  Remind yourself to dwell on the REAL, not the ideal.   When we are reeling in horror from our teen’s verbal abuse, it’s natural to think about how our teenagers should act.  We might think about how respectfully we treated our parents, how nice our friends’ kids are, how grateful our kids should feel to us, etc., etc.   When we dwell on ideals, our real family relationships may seem very shabby, especially during a conflict. These comparisons don’t help anyone.  They only make us suffer more than necessary.  Worse, they distract us from the situation at hand.  Wishing our teen would act differently keeps us from trying to observe closely, trying to understand what is fueling the hostility, trying to set firm boundaries and yet trying to help.  This is no time to be pondering the ideal.  The ideal is just a distraction. 

Certainly you want to set standards and be inspired by your ideals.  Ideals can guide you in building wonderful relationships over time.  Right this minute, however, you have your hands full.  You are in the midst of a struggle with your teen and with your own anger.  It’s time to be fully present in the moment.  As I stressed in Part II of this series, you must keep your head in the game!


I – Remind yourself, “I am a teacher.”  If your anger is making you feel like a victim, an adversary, a stranger, a judge, or anything other than a loving teacher, please review the following discussion from Part II in this blog series:


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.  (Remember, they are only learning to examine and regulate their emotions.  Again, this is a matter of gradual brain development.)  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.


When you go back to face your teen and open a discussion, be very sure that you are in “teacher mode.”  Think about what it is that you want to teach.  What do you think your child needs to know?  How will you convey a standard of behavior in terms that your he or she can understand.  How do you want your child to profit from your discussion?  What do you want the “take-away” to be for him or her?  Someday, when you child recalls the discussion that you will soon have, what do you want to stand out in his or her memory?  Think about how you can turn this painful incident into an opportunity.  What will benefit your daughter or son the most?


D – Remember how dear your child is to you.  One of the quickest ways to release anger is to remember how deeply you love your child.  If you have a photo album of your daughter or son, gaze at the photos from earlier ages.  Recall how dedicated you felt and how much joy you received just watching that person grow up and treasuring the milestones. 

Remember that the teen who has angered you so is still the same child.  And you are still the same parent who loves that child for all time.  As mentioned above, your child is in a confusing and painful transition toward new milestones  It’s normal for kids to change and try new behaviors during this time.  It’s understandable why they are anxious and stressed, just as it was understandable for them to cry when they were teething.  You probably felt overwhelmed and exhausted sometimes when your child was an infant.  You may feel overwhelmed and exhausted right now.  (Anger is particularly exhausting.)  These are rough emotional times for parents.  Just as you weathered the rough times before, you can weather this rough patch now.  You can do it because your child is so very dear to you.


E –  Ask yourself what your child is experiencing.  Earlier in this post, we discussed how teens are so vulnerable to anxieties and stress.  Keeping that knowledge in mind, think about your teenager’s life over the past week or so.  What might be on her mind?  What do you think her day was like today?  What demands were made him socially, scholastically and physically?  By whom? 

How do you think your child sees you?  What does she think you think of her?  What do you think worries her the most about her self-worth?  Do you think she feels loved?  If so, by whom? 

How best could you convey your love and support?  What could you do or say that would make him smile?  Who is meeting his emotional needs right now?  Who helps him to find the best in himself?  Who inspires her?  Why? 

What gifts or traits do you love most about your child?  Does he know?  Have you been making the effort to find the good and point it out?  If your child needs reassurance, why would that be?  What kind of reassurance is most needed?

Continue to ask yourself these kinds of questions.  As you think lovingly about your son or daughter, keep probing (1) possible reasons for anxiety, (2) likely reasons for hostility, (3) what needs he or she may have, and whether they are being met, and (4) how you can be most supportive while setting boundaries.  Also ask yourself what major changes your child has experienced over the past several years.  How did those those changes seem to affect him?


Keep going through the P-R-I-D-E process until you have reached a state of calm compassion.  You may have to repeat this process more than once.  When you have reached that state, congratulate yourself on a job well done!  None of this is easy! 

Now, extend that same compassion to yourself.  Forgive yourself for any anger you felt. Remember that teens are making their parents angry all over town.  You’re only human.  Hostility hurts, and anger is a normal response.  The more anger you had to overcome, the greater your accomplishment. You worked very diligently through this process, and you’ve changed a destructive mindset into a nurturing one.

Best of all, you’ve grounded yourself in unconditional love for your teen.  When you sit down together soon, your anger won’t derail the conversation.  You’re prepared to be a kind, understanding listener and a firm teacher.  You’ll be able to show compassion, which will help to melt your teen’s hostility.  That will be the subject of my next post.

With the greatest respect for you,


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