We Didn’t Role Model Abusive Behavior


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 152 · Duration: 00:19:46

We Didn’t Role Model Abusive Behavior

What do you do when your 17-year-old son shouts at, swears at, and berates his girlfriend?

Before we dive into today’s question, I’d like to say that we remain in extraordinary times. We’re at a time in history that is challenging us to bring out our best, maybe even make us better. So please stay vigilant, wear a mask when you’re out, and keep your children informed about the state of things. Make space for them to share their thoughts and feelings. Remember, as parents, you don’t need to fix their feelings, just understand and care about them.

We Didn’t Role Model Abusive BehaviorThis week, we’re hearing from Margaret, who listens to us down under in Australia. Margaret writes:

What can we do when our 17-year-old son speaks rudely and aggressively to his girlfriend (she’s 16) and shouts and swears at her and badgers and berates her. He is not always like this with her, when he’s in a good mood he is funny and kind and pleasant to her. But when he is in a bad mood, or she has done something that he perceives as annoying and upsetting (usually something small, or nothing at all), he is horrible. He couches it that she is to blame because she was ‘rude’ or ‘hurtful’ to him, which we don’t see any evidence of, he just seems to get into a foul mood and take it out on her. He’s often like that with us too, but his nastiness to her is more upsetting to us. He mainly does it on the phone when he’s in his room. We have tried to interrupt him several times, but he screams at us to go away. My husband and I think that we have usually modeled a good relationship so we don’t know where it is coming from. What should we do?

Thanks for your question, Margaret. I’m glad that you wrote because your son is 17 and has some serious growing up to do while you still have parental influence. The situation you describe is extremely unhealthy for many reasons.

Emotional Management Skills

Your son’s girlfriend is in an abusive relationship and that’s traumatic for her. It is causing her harm that will endure for a long time. Your son’s abusive behavior presents several risks for him. It can be a pattern of behavior that affects his future relationships, perhaps a spouse, perhaps his future children, and can get him in legal trouble.

There’s a thin line between emotional and physical abuse, and physical abuse can happen inadvertently in a situation of intense emotion and rage. For instance, your son is raging at a girlfriend. She gets in his face and tells him to stop. He reacts and pushes her away. She falls back and hits her head on a piece of furniture. She goes to the ER  and can be seriously injured and the incident is reported and your son gets charged with domestic violence causing bodily injury.

There’s a thin line between emotional and physical abuse. Physical abuse can happen inadvertently in a situation of intense emotion and rage.Click To Tweet

I see situations like this often in my office. In addition to the misery it causes in relationships, there’s the misery of being arrested and going to jail, the thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, fines, and then as part of the resolution of the case, there are counseling and anger management classes. So the real question for your son is: Would he like to deal with this before it screws up his life, or after it screws up his life?

Here is the thing your son has wrong, and it sounds like you may have wrong as well. He seems to believe that if his girlfriend or his parents do something he considers wrong, or against him, his emotionally abusive reaction is warranted. You say in your question that you don’t see the behaviors in his girlfriend that he complains about, but that’s not the point. Regardless of her behavior, your son is responsible for his behavior and he’s blaming her.

Now you say he’s often like that to you, his parents, too, but you don’t mind it as much as you mind the way he treats his girlfriend. Margaret, he apparently learned that it’s okay to treat his intimates badly when he gets upset. It’s our job to teach our children emotional management skills and your son hasn’t learned emotional management skills and hasn’t learned that he’s supposed to use emotional management skills.

Kids don’t learn everything from role modeling. So if you and your husband don’t treat each other disrespectfully, that’s great, and yes it’s good role modeling, but your son needed more. He needed and still needs limits and guidance: limits on disrespectful behavior and guidance for how to manage his emotions and communicate his needs respectfully.

As kids go from toddlers to children to teens and to young adults, they learn social-emotional skills along the way. Toddlers can have a tough time managing their emotions, young children can do a bit better, older children better yet. As teenagers where kids are declaring their independence, there can be a regression back to disrespectful behavior, sometimes tipping into abusive behavior if not corrected.

Another element affecting intense anger is temperament. Kids who experience their emotions intensely will have a harder time learning to manage them, so those kids will need extra focus on that issue.

Take Action Now

So, Margaret, this is all interesting, but you wrote your question because you know what he’s doing isn’t okay, and you’re wondering what to do about it now? As I said, I’m glad you wrote in because your situation does call for urgent action. Things have gone way too far, so now I’ll be asking you to change a very entrenched pattern in your family.

For whatever reason, you seem to have given away your parental authority and hoped that positive role-modeling would do the whole job. Your son needed some bumper guards in place to be able to manage his intense feelings; he needed limits and guidance.

Before we look at how to make critical changes, let’s take a brief moment to ask why neither you nor your husband was able to set critical limits and teach your son to use emotional management skills. I’m guessing, and I mean guessing because I’ve never met either of you, that you fit what I call the double softy syndrome. That’s when both parents are easy-going by nature, they have easy-going temperaments, and tend to avoid conflict.

Double softy syndrome occurs when both parents are easy-going by nature, have easy-going temperaments, and tend to avoid conflict.Click To Tweet

If that’s the case, neither you nor your husband stepped out of your comfort zone to take a strong stand. It’s even possible that when one of you stepped up to set and enforce clear limits, the other parent softened things and undermined the lesson. So for whatever reason, you both get uncomfortable with strong emotions. There could be reasons beyond temperament; you could have been parented by a critical and authoritarian parent, and wanted to emphasize being understanding in your family. Once again, I don’t know but it’s worthwhile for you both to understand why you gave away your parental authority.

Now, it’s vital that you take it back, and here’s how you can do it. Like I say, this will be difficult because your son is going to act up and become hostile when you set and enforce limits, so you’ll need to anticipate that and be willing to go through it to get things going in the right direction.

You are going to need to push reset on the standards of behavior in your home and the standards of behavior required of your son. All privileges are contingent on his meeting those standards, and with your son privileges should include having a phone, driving privileges, and even going out, and perhaps even having a girlfriend. I know that sounds extreme, but if he can’t treat a girlfriend with kindness, respect, and provide emotional safety for her, then he shouldn’t have one. It will be difficult to enforce, but the principle should be made clear.

The Talk and The Action

So here is The Talk And The Action you will need to take with your son. If he is unwilling to sit and listen, then write it down and email and text or print it or all of the above so he gets the message, and I’ll call your son Tony.

Tony, Dad and I owe you an apology. Here you are, 17-years-old and, somehow we have neglected to teach you that you are responsible for managing your emotions and how to manage your emotions. Right now it seems that anytime you don’t like what we’re saying or doing, or Annie is saying or doing, that you can be disrespectful, even hostile, rage, and create an emotionally unsafe environment. This is verbal abuse and it is completely unacceptable. When we gave you a phone, it was not to verbally abuse another person with. When we gave you the use of the car, it was with the understanding that you are a thoughtful responsible young adult. Your disrespectful behavior towards us and your abusive behavior towards Annie says otherwise.

When you are in a good and positive mood, your positive qualities are as wonderful as your negative qualities are horrible when you are in a bad mood or have negative feelings. So once again, we apologize for not teaching you this sooner but this is critical so we can’t cry over spilled milk, all we can do is take action now.

First of all, you need to know what we expect:

  • We expect you not to lose your temper
  • Not to say mean things to Annie and to treat her with kindness and respect
  • Not to yell at or be disrespectful to us
  • When we set a limit or ask you to do something, you’ll need to find a way to adjust and deal with it positively
  • We are going to go to counseling together to get ourselves on the same page
  • You are going to need to go to individual counseling to learn emotional management skills.
  • There’s a lot of literature on the subjects of emotional management skills, anger management, and verbal abuse and you can get a head start on things by seeing what’s out there and getting some resources for yourself.

Until you let us know that you understand what we’re talking about and are committed to addressing your issues, there will be no phone, no driving privileges and if we get wind of you continuing to be abusive to Annie, you will be banned from seeing or communicating with her. If necessary, we will contact her parents and let them know what’s going on, and encourage them to pause the relationship.

We know this is extreme, yet the seriousness of your behavior warrants it. We don’t expect you to be perfect, but we do expect your best effort and real progress.

So, folks, there are a few lessons here for all of us:

  • When we see abusive behavior, especially in our children but in our spouse or on the street, we need to call it out.
  • Emotional management skills need to be taught throughout a child’s life, from toddlerhood through young adulthood. Emotional management includes anger management, but it can include how to manage disappointment, grief, anxiety, depression, the full range of emotions, and learning to identify, understand and respond to our emotions is one the 5 critical Executive Function Skills.
  • A third lesson here is that parents all have strengths and weaknesses that have to do with our temperament and our upbringing, nature and nurture. You may very well have a child or children that grow beautifully with your specific skill set, yet you may have a child or children that need you to get out of your comfort zone to parent them effectively. If you are challenged by a child or teenager, don’t let a control battle, a long term negative pattern, develop. It will negatively impact your child’s development, affect everyone in the family, and create parental burnout.

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and special thanks to Margret for her most important question.

During this time of profound disruption, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Your local mental health resources are very much there, mostly using video platforms, and that works just fine, phones work too, and sometimes you can be seen in person as well.

If you're looking for a resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially and emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website neildbrown.com and shoot me an email or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk with you.

Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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