Today, this is a common response to one’s parents as a teenager and also one of the most painful things to deal with for a parent with a child of this age.
However, it can be less painful when considering the reasons why it happens. There are many reasons a child this age may lash out with harsh words towards their parents.
1. This is the age where children are making that difficult transition into the world of adulthood. They are passing into a world where they are taking a greater part in the world around them, they are learning to function more and more in the “real world”, they are finding themselves in this world, and they are taking on more and more responsibility both in school and at home. This can be a frightening transition for some children and they may go through a version of what happened when they were experiencing a similar transition when they were toddlers. This same kind of transition happens when a child is around the age of 3 and first experiences that they are no longer completely protected and surrounded by their mother, but that they are also part of a larger social network. This mild separation from the parent can be so frightening to the toddler that they can lash out with temper tantrums and other forms of disturbance. In teenagers this can also happen – harsh words can be the teen version of a “temper tantrum”. Reflect back on how your son dealt with that first transition in his life. Did he have difficulty with it? He may be experiencing that same difficulty now.
2. Any transition can be difficult for a child who has trouble with transitions in general. Children of the phlegmatic/water temperament can be especially susceptible to this as they often experience transitions in a more traumatic way. A child of this temperament can also present a very confusing picture to their parents as they are usually (until that point) very calm, easygoing and peaceful children. In both of these situations (1 and 2) a parent can help their child through this transition by letting them know that they trust them to make the right decisions, allowing them to take on more responsibility, giving them opportunities to show and experience that they are capable, and letting them know you are there for them with love unconditionally, and that even if they say mean things to you that you still love them.
3. Another reason a child may lash out at this age is to test their ‘safety net’. A healthy child feels safely wrapped in a comfortable net of parent protection and love. Ironically, then, it is sometimes the most healthy children than experience this feeling of trauma when they feel this “net” lifting. The more they venture into the world, the less they feel the comfort of that “net”. They may start to do unusual things to test and make sure it is still there. They may rebel with the subconscious hope that their parents will tell them “no – you can’t do that – that is unsafe” or they may say harsh things to their parents to “test” and see if their parents’ love is strong enough to endure hardships. They may give their parents any number of tests. They are not doing this on purpose or with an awareness that they are “testing”. All they feel is this subconscious pull to do so.
Let your child know that you love him/her no matter what (even if the say they do not care he does), and make sure you set reasonable and gentle limits for them and that they have consequences when those limits are exceeded. For example, if he/she has a curfew, make sure he/she has a consequence if he/she comes home after his/her curfew. He/she will become upset and perhaps call you names for enforcing the curfew, but inside he/she is feeling a strong sense of happiness and security knowing that his/her parents really do care enough to still watch over him/her in some way and take care of him/her. Of course any teenager would never admit this at the time. They are in the middle of trying to prove they are young adults, and can function without their parents – but they still do need their parents.
4. Another possible reason a child may lash out at this age is if they are being prevented, in some way, from smoothly making this transition into young adulthood. A 14-year-old child often has a lot of adult capabilities and mature teenagers even have a lot of adult thought processes. However, many are still treated like small children, talked down to, or not given enough responsibility and trust. A child of this age needs many venues in which to experience that they can function on their own and that the people around them believe in their capabilities. Regular chores around the house (not excessive, but ones that help him feel he is an important part of the household and is actually helping it run) can help as can giving him more difficult tasks or asking for his help with adult tasks such as changing a tire, assembling furniture or fixing things around the house. He also needs to be able to experience these things outside the house in the form of field trips with classmates, overnights with clubs, camping trips, competitions or other activities in which he can show he is a strong, responsible “adult”.