My 18-year-old daughter is always angry and sometimes in a rage. At the moment I am sweeping up broken glass from the door she kicked in. She is becoming increasingly violent and it is frightening me. My husband wants her to leave the house. What can I do to manage this situation and where can I go to get her help (I lost my job so can’t afford much)?
Though it is not often talked about, many parents experience ongoing bullying and violent behaviour from their children and teenagers, which can range from verbal abuse and threats to destruction of property and even physical violence. Whereas this can be easier to deal with when the children are young, it becomes much more alarming as they become older when the behaviour can be more extreme and intimidating.
There are many reasons for such behaviour and often no one cause: sometimes it is in the context of underlying problems such as drinking, drug taking or being in a delinquent peer group.
It is more common in families in which the child has witnessed similar behaviour from parents or family members. Frequently it is a pattern of behaviour which started as a means of getting their own way as a young child, which escalated as they got older.
The first step to dealing with violent or bullying behaviour is to decide that it is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. This may seem obvious, but some parents collude with their children’s behaviour by feeling guilty for past family events (perhaps where the child witnessed violence) or by thinking their child has an underlying problem which makes it hard for them to control themselves (such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Conduct Disorder).
Remember that, even if your child has such a history or has such diagnoses, violent behaviour is still unacceptable and you must address it. You do your children no favours by allowing them to disrespect or abuse you.
The next step is to sit down and explain to your daughter that you will not tolerate aggression at home. The key is to focus on the importance of respect as the primary rule of the house rather than other less important issues (such as cleaning their room etc).
You then need to think through what consequences you will need to enforce when the problem arises. Like your husband, many parents in these circumstances consider insisting their child leaves the home if another violent incident occurs. However, you may be reluctant to do this as you might worry that it will damage your relationship or will leave her exposed to extra dangers if she lives away.
I suggest you keep the option of her leaving home as your last resort, but that you also explore less severe consequences as your first port of call. Make a list of all the privileges your daughter gains by living at home such as laundry, cooked meals, access to a phone, using the car, money and a private bedroom. Then make these dependent on her behaving respectfully. If she gets abusive, then remove one of these privileges as a consequence.
What works varies from teenager to teenager, but it is important to make the consequence as small as possible so the teenager can work to have the privilege restored – by showing remorse or trying to be respectful.
You need to examine your own reactions to the violent incidents. For example, many parents inadvertently fuel the escalation of a row by nagging or lecturing, or using threats and physical discipline themselves. The key is to commit to a calm, firm and non-violent approach. When dealing with a row that could escalate into an aggressive incident, it is important to interrupt these patterns early.
The minute your child becomes abusive you need to pause and interrupt the row – “I’m not going to talk to you until you speak politely to me” – and warn your child of a consequence either then or later.
Of course, this can be difficult to do, especially if you feel intimidated or scared. This is why it is important to seek support. It can really help if you and your husband work together in this calm and firm approach. Decide on a back-up plan if you are dealing with an incident alone – such as calling a neighbour or friend, or even the police if an incident gets out of hand (you can contact the police in advance to discuss how they might help).
Once you get through an incident, you must later talk through what happened with your daughter, making sure to impose a consequence (such as paying for the damage) and exploring with her how she can be respectful the next time. This follow-up is crucial in order to help her take responsibility.
As well as being firm in dealing with the aggression, it is important to try to reach out to her and to understand what is going on for her. You can be sympathetic to the problems and stresses that might be in her life (perhaps lack of work, relationship problems or other issues), though they are not an excuse for behaviour.
Though things may be under strain at the moment, it can help to try and improve your relationship with her. The more you can have times of ordinary chat, the easier it will be to get along and this will reduce the likelihood of problems. Make a list of things you might connect on.
When did you last have an enjoyable conversation? Was it when you were going for a walk or doing something you liked together perhaps. Think of ways you can increase these happier experiences together.
Finally, seek professional support. It is difficult to deal with violence alone and professional services might help. In the first instance, contact Parentline (1890-927277), which can provide support and suggest services in your area. There are also good international websites on dealing with teenage violence such as parentlink.act.gov.au and eddiegallagher.id.au
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, May 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.