Aggressive behaviour by a child towards a parent is one of the least studied areas of domestic violence. This is due in large part because parents are reluctant to admit that it happens. Many parents feel embarrassed, confused and even responsible for their child’s actions.
But it happens. In fact some large-scales studies in the US show that 9-14% of parents will, at some point, be physically assaulted by their adolescent children. Australian studies show that we’re about in line with those numbers, with violence from child to parent at about 10%.
Sometimes this aggression may simply be your adolescent child pushing against parental boundaries. But sometimes it’s more than that. So, how do we know when the aggression is part of normal adolescent behaviour… and when it’s not?
Acting out versus aggression and violence
Acting out occasionally is a normal part of development. Our teens are searching for their own identity and will often push against our boundaries. But, when your teen becomes aggressive or violent, we need intervention.
Consider the dad who told his 15-year-old son to turn off his video game. The boy flatly refused. After some back and forth, the dad finally unplugs the television. The son becomes enraged, jumps up and punches his dad in the nose, breaking it.
Or the 17-year-old girl who was told she couldn’t take the family car to a party. When she tried to get into the car anyway, her mum stood in front of the door. The daughter grabbed her mum, wrestled her away from the car and threw her to the ground.
These are situations where acting out has turned into something more serious. Sometimes these behaviours arise out of situations where the child hasn’t been given enough warmth or enough boundaries. Sometimes it’s from early exposure to violence. Sometimes it stems from the child’s narcissistic behaviours. And sometimes we don’t know where it comes from.
But we do know that we need to intervene, and right away.
How to deal with aggressive or violent teens
Remove power from violence.
In these situations, children are seeking power through violence. We absolutely can’t give them that power. We can’t give in to what they want when they are violent. We must stand firm in the decisions that we’ve made.
Instead, give them power by teaching them communication and problem-solving skills. Help them learn to ask for what they need or want, and appropriate ways to express disappointment.
Hold them accountable for their actions.
Don’t brush what happened aside. Once everyone is calm, talk about what happened and why it happened. Discuss together what made it escalate and how it made you feel. While you shouldn’t yell or ‘punish’, you should work together to establish logical consequences that arise from this behaviour.
Monitor the media in your home.
There’s a lot of debate about whether viewing violence in media is harmful. But whatever the answer, when you are in a violent situation, it only makes sense to create a non-violent environment.
Be aware of what your child is consuming on the television, through video games and on the internet. Excluding this kind of media tells everyone in the family that violence is not OK.
Be a role model.
As a parent it’s your job to be a role model. Your children are watching everything that you do. They are learning how to react to things that upset them. If you or your partner model violence or aggression, your child will mimic you.
Be aware of triggers.
You can limit violent and aggressive behaviour by being aware of triggers. These can be being denied something, being asked to do something or being asked to stop doing something they want to keep doing. Though you can’t give in to your child’s every desire, being aware of things that may set them off can help you manage your own reactions.
Be warm and loving.
Let your child know you will always love them no matter what, and you will always be there for them.
Most importantly… get help.
This type of physical aggression usually requires professional help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Seek a counsellor that can help you and your child find a way to move forward in a safe, neutral environment.
And if you or your family are in an unsafe situation, don’t hesitate to call the police. This can be a really confronting thing to do, but there are situations where it may be the only way of stopping the violence. Remember, abuse is never OK, no matter who is delivering it.