THE CHILD AND VERBAL ABUSE
Why do kids threaten and verbally abuse their peers? One reason is that when these children feel powerless, they lash out in an attempt to gain more control. Another reason is that they dont have the problem-solving skills necessary to deal with frustration, to deal with disappointment or to resolve conflicts in a more appropriate manner. Children may fail to develop social problem-solving skills for a variety of reasons, which include diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities, family chaos, or individual temperament. Consequently, these kids often become overwhelmed by the emotions theyre experiencing as a result of their inability to solve social problems appropriately. If they dont have the tools to deal with these uncomfortable feelings, they resort to name-calling, threats and verbal abuse of those around them.
It is my firm belief that children also threaten their peers because in our culture today, power has become the solution for the problems people face. That message comes at children from every conceivable source. Movies, music, video games, politics and pro sports glorify aggression and the use of power to get your way. Preteens and adolescents are the most vulnerable to cultural messages, and the message they are getting says that if youre weak, if youre alone, you lose. Dont kid yourself; this is not wasted on our youth. From a very early age, kids are taught that fighting for power and control will solve their problems. And as they get older, that fight becomes a lot more intense.
Now lets say you have a child who, for whatever reason, has poor problem-solving skills. He sees the message of power around him on T.V., in his community and in his culture. He then learns how to use power in the form of threats and verbal abuse to replace his lack of problem-solving abilities. Instead of having to deal with his emotions and overcome whatever given obstacle is in his path, that child uses acting-out behaviour, aggressive behaviour and abusive behaviour so that somebody else has to solve his problems for him. In effect, using this acting out, aggressive or abusive behaviour becomes his problem-solving skill. This is a very dangerous pattern for a child to develop.
How Defiance Develops in Your Child
When we raise our children, we are teaching them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether we think theyre learning from us or not. Children watch adults for a living. What parents dont always understand is that chronic defiance in children develops over time, after certain lessons are learned and it can start very early on.
Lets take the case of a child who was a fairly normal baby. Hes achieved all the developmental milestones, was perhaps a little cranky at times, but generally, behaved age-appropriately. As he gets a little older, he starts having more problems. At about the age of five, he begins to balk at the idea of picking up after himself, whether its his dirty clothes going into the hamper or toys with which hes been playing. If hes told to clean things in his room, he goes to the living room instead of complying. When asked to finish the task at hand, he says, I dont want to, and that becomes his battle cry. His parents have to stand over him to get anything done. As he gets older, he starts to challenge and justify, his voice gets louder and his tone gets rougher. He gets stuck in the loop of saying, I dont want to. I dont have to. Ill do it later. Why do I have to do it now? When pushed, he will do things grudgingly, but only when adults are watching him. And as soon as they leave the room, his compliance stops.
Some parents will respond to this behaviour by lowering their expectations. They place less responsibility on their child to pick up after himself. They wind up picking up his dirty clothes every day and picking up his books and toys, rather than dealing with his resistance, excuses and thinking errors. They think its easier and keeps the peace if they just to do it themselves.
For the parents, this can seem like a really good way to cut down on the fighting. After all, it only takes them 30 seconds to put the books away and pick up their childs laundry. By the way, thats a very common response and in some cases, it works out fine. But there are certain children who see that their parents have changed their rules and expectations because they fear their childs resistance and acting out.
These are the children for whom capitulation on the part of the parents becomes a lesson. The lesson is, If I throw a tantrum and scream at my mother and father, Im going to get my way. For these children, what tends to happen is that they start throwing more tantrums, yelling more frequently and using these inappropriate behaviours to solve their social problems.
Very early in life, children have to learn to deal with the word no. They have to learn the feelings of frustration or anger that are triggered when they hear it. In that way, being told no is a social problem that they have to solve. Most children develop the social skills of managing the feelings that are triggered when theyre denied something. But when the children Im talking about are told no in a department store, their behaviour escalates until theyre tantruming. And what tends to happen over time is that parents read the signals: they see that the behaviour is escalating, and they try to do something about it before the tantrum begins. In other words, as the child gives them cues that hes going to soon lose control if they keep placing the same demands on him, they lessen their demands. That lowering of expectations usually occurs by over-negotiating, compromising, or giving in to their childs demands. In this way, these kids learn to shape the behaviour of the adults around them. Make no bones about it, when parents change their routine because a child throws a tantrum, or verbally abuses them, theyre teaching that child that he can have power over them through inappropriate behaviour. And once again, its not a lesson lost on that child.
While thats going on, theres a parallel process in which the parents are learning, as well. That lesson is, If the child is given into, he stops tantruming and stops acting out. For most parents, stopping the acting out is important because its embarrassing and frustrating. And so the parents are taught by the child that if they do what he wants, things will get easier, and if they dont hold him accountable, even at 24 months, hell stop yelling and having temper tantrums. Parents learn to tolerate more inappropriate, acting-out behaviour from the child. I call it Parents raising their tolerance for deviance. And those two processes, separate though parallel, build on each other and form the childs way of dealing with life.
Of course, as the child gets older, tantrums take on a very different look. Since lying on the floor and screaming and kicking your feet makes kids feel embarrassed when they reach a certain age, they learn various forms of verbal abuse, including name-calling, putting others down, and threatening. They enter kindergarten and try to throw tantrums or fight with their teachers, and then wonder why they arent allowed to get away with things in school. Many times, they have problems getting along with other kids. When you think about it, the sandbox is a very commonsense place. If your child is in the sandbox with other kids and hes yelling at them and calling them names or threatening to hurt them, they wont play with him anymorethats all there is to it. And if your child is using inappropriate behaviour as a way to get his way, the other kids are going to avoid him. If they have no choice but to accommodate him, once again he will fail to develop appropriate social skills. The lesson that he can get his way by verbally abusing others is reinforced.
So the intimidation between that child and his parents, and between that child and his peers, can start pretty early. Remember that there might be any number of reasons why a child is acting out and unable to handle the difficulties life presents: he might not learn to solve problems effectively because he has a neurological impairment like ADHD, an undiagnosed learning disability, a chaotic family life, or just a personal tendency to be oppositional. The acting-out child then enters adolescence and is a teen whose only problem-solving skills are to talk back abusively, put others down and curse at them, threaten to break things, or even use physical violence. One of the theories of The Total Transformation Program is that it doesnt really matter what prevents your child from learning how to solve problemsrather, its his inability to do this that leads to the inappropriate behaviour. This includes the use of power thrusts like verbal abuse, physical intimidation and assault.
The truth is, its a core part of our job as parents to teach our children problem-solving skills and to show them that tantrums, screaming, yelling and name-calling, verbal abuse and intimidation will not solve their problems. The reason why we need to step in and help them change their ineffective way of dealing with lifes problems is because the more we give power to inappropriate, verbally abusive, behaviour the less prepared that child is going to be to solve lifes problems as an adult. Make no mistake about it, children who use verbal abuse, name-calling, cursing and intimidation, become verbally abusive adults.