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Home Articles Children and Teens What to Do If Your Teen or Adult Child Is Abusive

What to Do If Your Teen or Adult Child Is Abusive

When a grown child abuses a parent, things can get complicated. Here’s what to know.

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Child exhibits abusive behaviors toward parents

There’s a type of domestic violence or family violence that often gets overlooked—it’s when a teenager or adult child abuses a parent. As with other kinds of domestic violence, this type of abuse can take many forms, but at its core, the purpose is to exert power and control over the parent. Children can abuse their parents:

  • Physically
  • Verbally
  • Emotionally
  • Psychologically
  • Financially
  • Using religion

Adult children are often adept at exploiting their parents’ weaknesses. “Adult children are more mature and sophisticated. They know where the vulnerabilities are, and they pick up on them,” says Karen Roberto, Ph.D., the executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment at Virginia Tech and a member of the American Psychological Association. 

When Do Abusive Actions Often Start?

Roberto says you might see signs of aggressive behaviors as young as age six or seven, when children start to lash out at a parent, especially if family relationships are strained. That’s because children who behave aggressively may be reacting to family interactions. Children who act aggressively toward a parent may exhibit aggressive behavior across relationships, such as in school or sports.

For some children, the abusive behavior drops off in their mid-teens. Children who learn better coping skills and anger management strategies and have some interventions are more likely to stop the abuse. “But others continue that behavior well into adulthood,” Dr. Roberto says.

Children who are abused may become abusers. “I’m involved in a study now that has been tracking children who were abused as young children, and now, they’re mid-life, adult children. A lot of them show great resilience, but in some, there’s this tendency of intergenerational transmission of violence,” Dr. Roberto says.

How Can Parents Identify Abusive Behavior in Children?

Many teenagers exhibit some undesirable or offensive behavior, such as yelling and slamming doors. But abuse goes further. “If it seems like a consistent pattern, we’re probably not talking about the typical hormones that we like to blame everything on,” Roberto says. And children and teens who are abusive tend to exhibit that behavior in various areas of their lives. “Look at how they’re treating themselves, others in the family, objects and pets,” Roberto says.

“We need to not ignore signs or attribute problematic behaviors as just part of being a teen’s life. You don’t want to hover and smother a person, but you need to pay attention to what’s happening. Sometimes there are mental health issues that, if attended to earlier, can be managed in a much better way,” Dr. Roberto says.

According to Brian Spitzberg, Ph.D.,,parental abuse often occurs in the following sequence:

  1. The adolescent makes a request.
  2. The parent asks for clarifying information.
  3. The adolescent responds courteously and provides the requested information.
  4. The parent acknowledges the teen's point of view but decides to say "no" based on the information provided, while possibly continuing the conversation regarding a possible "next time."
  5. The adolescent tries to change the mind of the parent by asking the parent to explain the decision, sometimes using the information to continue to challenge the parent until certain that the answer would not change.
  6. If the parent holds firm to his or her decision, the teen may start using abusive remarks and threats, harass the parent by following the parent around, and finally responding with verbal threats, physical force, emotional abuse and often destruction of property or financial damage.

It’s also possible that children who have been victims of domestic violence may begin to mimic abusive behaviors. Children who act out may be doing so as a reaction to their trauma. Adult abusers may also encourage children to be abusive toward their protective parent or another adult. It's important to know the difference between aggression as a trauma response and calculated abuse tactics, however, aggression can escalate into abuse if there is no intervention. 

Abuse Can Worsen When Children Become Adults

If abusive behavior continues unheeded into early adulthood, it often escalates. “People get stronger, and they understand better what buttons to push so that it can become a much more intensive type of abuse,” Roberto says. 

In cases where an adult child is abusing a parent, the child often relies on the parent for the same things young children and adolescents do—shelter, finances, support, etc. “If the parent pulls back or the resources run out, that propensity for violence increases,” Roberto says. 

Parents may blame themselves for their children’s behavior. Parents of adult children who are still dependent on them often think of themselves as failures or ask themselves what they did to create the situation. The affection parents typically feel toward their children can make it hard for parents to admit that their child is abusive. “Parents make excuses: ‘They have a temper,’ or ‘They need help, so it’s OK if they take my things,’” Roberto says.

What Can Parents Do If Their Child Is Abusive?

There are several steps parents can take if their child is exhibiting abusive behavior, depending on the actions and how long it’s been going on. The biggest challenge for most parents is acknowledging the problem. To get help, parents need to admit they are in a situation that could be harmful physically, psychologically or financially and that they need help. 

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Here’s what parents can do:

  • Identify unacceptable behaviors and set consequences. At the earliest signs of abuse, it’s essential to outline what behaviors are acceptable and what are not. “It’s about clearly communicating boundaries as to what is allowed in the household and following through with consequences,” Roberto says. 
  • Allow an expression of emotions. Teach kids about healthy ways to express “big” emotions and, particularly in boys, what healthy masculinity looks like. Read, “Why We Need to Let Boys Cry” for more tips.
  • Connect the child with professional help. If the behavior accelerates and parents or other family members are fearful, you may need to seek help to address mental health or substance abuse issues. These things do not cause abuse but can exacerbate abusive behavior.
  • Seek counseling or therapy for yourself. Parents need to get support for both the child and themselves. “Parents send messages to themselves: ‘I must be a bad parent.’ ‘I’m not doing this right.’ ‘If I was different, they wouldn’t hurt me or be so angry,’” Roberto says. “Having a safe place to talk often helps people move forward, seek help, and make changes in their lives to try to keep themselves safe and make a better family situation.” 
  • Talk to the juvenile systems in your area. If your child is still a teenager, some programs can help them learn to cope and manage their behavior. If you’re not sure where to start, try a local school. 
  • If you’re not safe, call the police. “That’s so hard on parents. But sometimes that’s the best thing that can be done,” Roberto says.
  • Reach out to Adult Protective Services. If you're 60 or older, you can connect with help in every state.
  • Create a safety plan. Safety planning is essential, particularly if a teen or adult child is physically abusive. “You have to be mindful of your own physical safety and that of other family members,” Roberto says. “You need to know where to go and what you need to have with you.” That preparation can also help parents understand that a teen or adult child’s behavior is extreme.