Do You Suffer Verbal Abuse from Your Teen? The Policy Conversation

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In recent posts, I’ve outlined steps for addressing your teen’s verbal abuse.  So far, you have been preparing yourself to take appropriate action.  You have examined your own barriers to correcting the problem.  You have learned ways to focus your thoughts and manage your emotions. Congratulations!

Now you are ready to take a strong, loving stand against verbal abuse!  This final post will help you take a leadership role in setting new policies for communication.  I will walk you through a process of engaging your teenager in a constructive discussion about alternatives to verbal abuse. 

I call this discussion the “Policy Conversation.”  The goal is to allow your child to inform you about what is bothering him or her and to set new guidelines for communication.

As you prepare for the policy conversation, there are five resolutions that will help you immensely.  I will explain each one below.  The mnemonic T-A-L-K-S” can help you to keep these resolutions in mind. 

 

T – TIME        I’ll choose a good time to talk.  

Timing is everything!  Before you address this “hot topic,” make sure you are calm and ready to respond compassionately to your teen.  Even if you have taken the time to calm down and elevate your state of mind, your teen may still be feeling hostile and angry.  Carefully gauge her attitude and select a time when she seems relatively calm and not busy.  You might even approach her and state that you want to have an important conversation within the next couple of days.  Ask when the best time would be.   If your teen refuses to set a time, then set one yourself.  However, do your best to choose a time when both of you are least likely to feel stressed.  Right now, in advance, think about the days and times that are generally stressful.  Make a mental note to choose other times.

 

 A – ALTERNATIVES         I’ll explain acceptable alternatives.

Remember, a parent is a teacher.  You have far more life experience than your child.  Your adult brain is far better equipped to use self-control and good judgment.  You’re in a position to teach your teen alternatives to verbal abuse.  Even better, you’re in a position to help your teen think of alternatives. 

As you prepare yourself for the Policy Conversation, think of some alternatives to verbal abuse. You want your teen to inform you of his feelings rather than acting them out.  Knowing him, what are the best ways to accomplish that?    What suggestions might he make?  Would they work for you?  It is helpful to think about these possibilities in advance, so that you put yourself in a solution-seeking frame of mind.

Here are a few ideas that other parents have had: (1) postpone conversation when one of you is angry; (2) excuse yourselves if one of you is becoming angry or emotional; (3) have a no-insult pact.  You will probably think of other good ideas.  List them now.

When you do speak with your teen, begin with a strong and simple statement:   “The words you used with me were unacceptable.  Profanity and insults drive people apart, and I’m not willing to let that happen.  I love you far too much for that!”  Because love is often forgotten in the heat of conflict, the last part of this statement is extremely important. 

Give your teen a minute or two to think about this statement.  Then explain that you see the need to treat each other in a kinder and more respectful way.  Describe your emotional reaction when she attacks you verbally.  (However, avoid the term “verbal abuse.”  You don’t want to wind up arguing about what is and isn’t “verbal abuse.”)  For example, “When you call me a liar, I see red.   And when I see red, I don’t feel sympathy for you and, honestly, I don’t even try to get your point of view.  But I want to, and later I do try to.  But by then, we’ve already had a fight instead of reaching an understanding.”

If he responds in a hostile way, or if he says nothing, give him a few moments of silence.  Remember, you have worked on reaching a state of calm compassion.  But teenagers are slower to shift from emotional turmoil to a state of calm reasoning.  Understand that your child may still be grappling with very strong, confusing feelings.  You will definitely need to take and keep the lead in this conversation.  Do not allow yourself to become angry, to lapse into scolding or self-pity.  When you continue talking, focus on the problem – not on his behavior. 

Instead, begin by providing an overview of the situation. Calmly state the facts of the problem and your intention to solve it:   “I know your life isn’t easy right now, and I’d love to help in some way.  I can see that you’re unhappy.  But when we get into these nasty arguments, I don’t come away with any new understanding.  I still don’t know what I can do to help, even though I really want to. We need to figure out how to have conversations that do some good.  Why make things worse when we can make things better?  We need to come up with a new policy.”

Rather than launching a personal attack on your teen, you have defined the problem as “lack of information” – not a character flaw.  You have also offered to do your part in solving the problem, and next you will offer ideas and ask your teen for ideas.  You have reminded your teen that you care about him and view him with compassion.  You have invited him to build a bridge together.

You can open the brainstorming phase of the conversation by offering one of the alternatives from your list.  Here’s an example:  “To me, it will help if you explain what is bothering you and what I can do to help.  If you want me to do something that I’m not doing, please do let me know.   If you want me to stop doing something, we can talk about that.   I’ll do the same.  I’ll let you know what I wish you would do or not do, then we can discuss it.  Instead of getting mad and saying things that anger us even more, let’s give each other more information. Do you think that policy would work?”  

Make sure to leave time after each of your suggestions so that your teen can think about them and make some suggestions of her own.  If she does, listen respectfully, without interruption.  Write down each idea.  Take every suggestion seriously, and hear her out.  If she suggests something that is hostile or absurd, resist your impulse to object.  Simply ask for more ideas. 

When you’re both out of ideas, go through each one.  Don’t dictate any one solution, but see if you can come to an agreement on one or more policies.  If your teen refuses to agree to any policy, simply state that it’s very important to improve communication and that it’s worth it to keep trying.  Remind your teen that you care about her feelings and you want to be more supportive.  To do that, you need more information.

Your child may still be too emotional to participate fully in this discussion.  If that seems true, ask him to come up with some suggestions to be discussed later in the week.  Invite him to write them down and leave a list for you to consider.  Offer certain times for the next conversation, and let him choose one.  A day before the scheduled conversation, remind him to make his list and to keep the time available. 

If your teen resists this approach, remind him that you two have a serious problem that can and must be solved.   Speak calmly but seriously.  State that you will not accept profanity or insults because that is not how intelligent people speak to each other.  If such words are addressed to you in the future, the conversation will end immediately.  If you wish to impose any other consequences (loss of privileges, for example), explain that, too.  Follow up by stating that you would prefer to handle the situation like two adults rather than treating your teen like a child.  State your belief that he can approach this problem in an adult way.

 

L –  LISTENING        I’ll listen for the feelings beneath the hostility.

Throughout this conversation, listen very carefully to everything your child says.  If there is any dialogue at all, congratulate yourself!    You have opened an important conversation.  You have begun to cut through the ice.  If your teen begins to list grievances against you, take out a pen and write them down. She will see that you take the input seriously.  Do not interrupt or defend yourself.  This is not a debate.  It is a chance for your teen to convey extremely important information.  Let her know that you are writing it down because you want to understand and remember what she has to say.  Make sure to clarify each point by paraphrasing her words and asking if your understanding is correct.  Ask for examples.  Again, don’t contradict her or defend yourself.  Simply try to understand what is being said.  Your goal is to understand your teen’s point of view.

As you listen, be aware of nonverbal communication.  What does your child’s facial expression and body language tell you?  What does your own intuition tell you?  It is important to notice this unspoken information, as it may contradict your teen’s words.  For example, if he angrily screams “I DON’T CARE,” isn’t it obvious that he does care?  Otherwise, he wouldn’t be so emotional?  Because their brains are still developing, and because their emotions are very intense, teens are often confused.  What may look like anger or hate may be the pain of overwhelming frustration.    For that reason, always allow time for your teenager to think before he speaks, especially if you have just asked an important question.  Be patient. Have compassion for his struggle, which may be far more difficult than yours.

 

K –   KINDNESS        I’ll respond with kindness. 

In my last post, I offered a formula for elevating your emotions from anger to compassion.  Once you have reached that state of mind, you want your deep love and good intentions to shine through.  A calm, firm, serious tone can also be a kind and gentle one.  Even if your child is blaming you and expressing hateful feelings, remember that adolescence can be extremely stressful and confusing.  Recall that kids have immature judgment and poor emotional control.  Remember how patiently you treated your child when she was first learning to walk?  Now she is learning to cope with stress and anxiety.  She needs your kind patience now just as she did then.  

You might also reassure your child that it’s normal for teens to feel things strongly and to “fly off the handle” before they think.  While your child may not be in the mood for a lecture on brain development, it may reassure her to know that she is not evil or crazy when she loses her temper.  When she has ugly feelings and says cruel things, she may fear that she is a bad person.  Reassure her that interpreting and managing feelings are skills that come with practice – and that most adults are still learning them.  Strategy is the key, and setting policy is a way of designing a strategy.

 

S – SOLUTION          I’ll insist that we find a solution.

You must absolutely insist on a solution.

No matter how resistant your teen may be for forming new policy, you must not give up. You have stressed that the problem is important to both of you and your long-term relationship.  If you give up now, what does that say about your dedication?   Your resolve?

Whether or not your child acknowledges it, his hostility is painful for him, as well. It is isolating and hard to bear.  It overshadows much, if not all, of his daily life.  He may not even know why he feels hostile or why he has chosen you as the person to punish.  Assume that he is confused, unhappy and overwhelmed — not that he hates you (even if he is being hateful and cruel).  It may be that you’re simply the easiest target. 

But what if your teen won’t participate in a policy discussion?  What if she sits sullenly or gets up and storms out of the room?  What if she becomes verbally abusive again?  

Don’t be discouraged.  This is the beginning of a process.   Firmly state that this problem needs to be addressed, and that you will return to the subject later.  Choose another time to bring up the subject again and make the same points. (Please review the above paragraph on “Timing.”) 

Before you attempt the next Policy Conversation, be sure that you are in a compassionate mindset by repeating the P-R-I-D-E exercise described in my last blog post.

Once again, stress the need for a new policy that keeps both of you calm enough to talk.  Insults, profanity and obscenities must stop because they anger and hurt you too much.  Ask what you can do to help her keep from getting too angry.   Once again, LISTEN while she answers.  Give her plenty of time to think and respond.

If two weeks have passed and your teen has still not engaged in the Policy Conversation, write her a letter.  Explain that your relationship with her means the world to you, that it’s hard for you to see her so unhappy and not know how to help.  Once again, give a neutral overview of the situation, and express confidence that things can get better.  Let her know that you recognize her anger, and that you want to know more about it and how you might be able to help.  Stress that, no matter how angry she may feel, a solution must be found because her happiness and your relationship is so important to you.    End by saying that, no matter what your differences are right now, you will love her always.  Make sure your tone is kind and firm, not accusing, complaining, entreating, threatening or harsh.

This difficult challenge is a golden opportunity to show how much you care.  Some parents find it easier to tolerate verbal abuse than to correct it.  It’s much like teaching a younger child to brush her teeth when (of course) she’d rather not.   It takes resolve to check every morning and night, insisting that the brushing be done.  Your insistence could cause daily tantrums or sneaky lies.  It could become so taxing that the battle doesn’t seem worth it.  You could just give up and let her teeth decay. But would she thank you later?

Don’t let this precious relationship decay.  Insist on a solution.

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I hope that this blog series has prepared you to teach your teen alternatives to verbal abuse.  I welcome your experience and suggestions below.  It’s so easy for loving parents to feel distraught and hopeless when treated abusively by their beloved kids.  It’s a tough challenge, but that’s all it is – a challenge, not a final outcome. Let’s help each other meet it head-on and restore civility, trust and affection in our families.  Please share your wisdom with others in this online community!

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Acknowledgement:  I would like to acknowledge a brilliant parenting expert, Susan Stiffelman, for many of the ideas and principles reflected in this post.  I highly recommend her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected. New York: Atria (Simon & Schuster) (2012) for parents of children and teens.

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