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. It turns out that in the face of this strong provocation we have an opportunity to help our teen get some learning and keep our relationship strong.
Why does it happen at home?
It happens at home and not with their friends or at school is because we’re their safe people. Home is the place they feel that they can vent their frustrations and bad moods. Making sure they know this is the key reason to ensure we keep communication channels open. Reacting to the behaviour in the moment closes down real communication. We want them to know 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 am going to be encouraging it aren’t I?
Old school thinking is that if we tolerate this behaviour, allowing this negative 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, quite the opposite. Having to review their own actions is far more meaningful a response than some hot tempered exchange in the moment would ever be.
First, let’s look at why teens are reacting. They may not have the emotional literacy to express how they feel in the moment with words. They know they have a feeling, but cannot express it. Instead they are more likely to show feelings through their actions. Swearing at us when we ask him to take out the bins is his way of saying “…Leave me alone!”.
Swearing is probably the last straw for our teen who is most likely to be struggling with overwhelm as he navigates the social and academic curriculum. The message from school at High School level is “this is serious now”. Schoolwork gets harder and the school environment is less personal. The opinion of his peers becomes vitally important. There are brain changes going on which make it harder for him to access calm in the moment and to 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 then 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 had growing up. A calm and steady response is the one which will help them access calm in the moment. Keep expectations realistic here – 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. Telling your teenager to calm down in the middle of an explosion is a waste of breath. Once you have both calmed down, let him know the effect of his actions. Bear in mind that he may take longer than you to calm. If he becomes calm quickly, make sure you have as well! These sorts of words will allow him time to reflect and think about what he 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 do I do?
Remember to breathe – pay attention to this, as we tend to hold our breath when we are stressed. The more times we can be calm when our teen swears the more likely it is that they will learn how to calm themselves in the moment.
Walk away – if we are feeling triggered and that we may say something we regret it’s a good idea to do this to give everyone some 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 behaviour like all other behaviour that gives us powerful clues about what is going on for our teen. It signals 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 our teen will turn into an axe murderer or a social misfit, which will not help us to stay calm in the moment, focus on meeting the need. Learning emotional literacy, naming feelings and staying calm enough to be able to express them requires us to be that calm and flexible person our teens can rely on.
It can make it easier to respond calmly when we know these approaches will help them to learn what to do. We need to give ourselves time to practice them. Watch for small improvements. Do more things to top up your tank beforehand to make sure you can access calm when you need to.