I am struggling to keep to our rule of not shouting when my son swears. Swearing makes me lose it. He is 14 and his behaviour and mood has hit rock bottom recently. I am frequently confronted by him being angry and swearing. Apart from the swearing I find it really upsetting when he sometimes thumps his brother and takes his things. I’ve noticed that the swearing and bad attitude is worse when I ask him to get off the computer, have a shower or do his chores. There’s just such a lot of testosterone and attitude. My younger child looks at me when he has an outburst as if to say “What are you going to do about it?!”
If you are the parent of a teenager reading this and thinking, “this could be my house” then you’re not alone. The pressure on parents to act in the moment and stamp out this sort of behaviour is huge. This behaviour is designed to provoke us and it’s highly effective! But in the face of this strong provocation, we have an opportunity to teach our teens and even strengthen our relationships.
Why Does It Happen At Home?
It happens at home and not with their friends or at school because we’re safe. They can ‘try on’ different behaviours with us, knowing we won’t reject them. Home is the place they feel that they can vent their frustrations and bad moods. This is a good thing! Making sure they know this will ensure communication channels stay open. Reacting to the behaviour in the moment actually closes down real communication. We want them to know that home is a safe place to vent all emotions, even negative ones. Once the emotion has been processed we can also teach them that some actions (like thumping their brother) need to be limited.
If I Ignore This Behaviour Then I’m Encouraging It Aren’t I?
Old school thinking (and some of our own parents) will tell you that if we tolerate this behaviour, allowing this negative expression of emotion to come out, we are “letting them get away with it”.
As a parent we feel massively disrespected when the person we love, care for, feed and water behaves this way. Try not to take it personally and bear in mind that they are not getting away with anything. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Reflecting on their own actions is far more meaningful a response than some hot tempered exchange in the moment.
First, let’s look at why teens are swearing or lashing out. They may not have the emotional literacy to express how they feel in the moment with ‘polite’ words. They know they have a feeling, but cannot express it. Instead, they’re more likely to show feelings through their actions. Swearing at us when we ask them to take out the bins is their way of saying “…Leave me alone!”
Swearing is probably the last straw for a teen who is likely to be struggling and overwhelmed as they navigate the social and academic curriculum. The message they’re getting from High School is “this is serious now”. Schoolwork gets harder and the school environment is less personal. The opinion of their peers becomes vitally important. Physiological changes are going on in their brains, making it harder to access calm in the moment or think of things from another person’s point of view.
This can be a big trigger for our teen to take out their frustrations on siblings. For more on sibling issues see here: https://bit.ly/2KFT5IV
OK, But What Do I Do When He Tells Me To *!@* Off?
When teens blow up like this, what they need is exactly the opposite sort of reaction to the one we may have experienced growing up. A calm and steady response will help them access calm in the moment. Keep expectations realistic – it’s not a fast process and we are going to have to repeat this step many times. It can take a long time to be effective.
So What Do I Say ?
Reflect back their feelings with these sorts of words:
“For you to swear at me like that tells me that you’re having really strong feelings.”
“This is really hard for you – what’s going to make things easier?”
This is not being soft. It’s not giving in. It’s giving your teen vital time in which to process their own emotions.
When Do I Say It?
“Calm down!” shouted in the moment is nearly the least effective phrase in the English language. It never works and often serves to make matters worse. Ordering your teenager to calm down in the middle of an explosion is a waste of breath. Once you have both calmed down, let them know the effect of their actions. Bear in mind that they may take longer than you to calm. If they become calm quickly, make sure you have as well! These sorts of words will allow them time to reflect and think about what they could do about it next time:
- “I felt hurt when you swore at me….”
- “From my perspective I feel……”
- “This isn’t working….what do you think needs to happen?”
What Else Should I Do?
Remember to breathe – pay attention to this, as we tend to hold our breath when we are stressed. The more consistently you show calm in the face of a swearing teen, the more likely it is that they will learn how to calm themselves in the moment.
Walk away – if you are feeling triggered and think you may say something you regret, it’s a good idea to give everyone some literal breathing space.
Use humour – some parents can use humour effectively in this sort of situation to defuse the tension but avoid sarcasm which confuses and can make it worse.
For more on how to manage strong feelings see here: https://bit.ly/2wSoaSv
Swearing is a behaviour. Like all other behaviour, it gives us powerful clues about what is going on for our teen. It signals that your teen’s needs aren’t being met. Teens need to learn how to communicate effectively when they are under stress. Instead of imagining that your teen will turn into an axe murderer or a social misfit, which will not help you to stay calm in the moment, focus on meeting the need.
Learning emotional literacy, naming feelings and staying calm enough to express them requires you to be the calm and flexible person your teen can rely on. Responding to provocation with calm is a challenge, but it’s well worth the effort. This approach will teach your teen, over time, how to better process difficult emotions.
It takes practice. Go easy on yourself and watch for small improvements. Do more things to top up your tank beforehand to make sure you can access calm when you need to.