Signs of Parental Abuse: What to Do When Your Child or Teen Hits You


Jennifer’s son began hitting her when he was 14 years old. “I just didn’t  know what to  do,” she told us. “If anyone else had hit me, I would have called  the police.  But this was my son! I didn’t want  him arrested but I  wanted the abuse to stop. I was ashamed to admit to my  family what was going on  and I knew they would take action, even if I didn’t.  The situation was  intolerable but I couldn’t take action. I felt trapped, like  I was in a car  without brakes.”

“Parental  abuse can leave a person feeling embarrassed, ashamed, angry and terrified.  These emotions are what we call ‘Parent Paralyzers’:  feelings that are so  intense they overtake logic and reason.”


Parental  abuse occurs when a child – usually a teenager but sometimes a  pre-teen –  engages in behavior that is abusive toward a parent. It may be a  one-time  incident or it may escalate in frequency, even to the point of a daily  occurrence.  It can range from verbal abuse (calling a parent foul names,  threatening a parent)  and intimidation to outright physical assault. If  you are the target of parental abuse, you’re probably living in fear  every day  of what your teen will do next, always waiting for what will set off  a volcanic  eruption. In other cases, the abusive behavior may occur with no  emotion: a  quiet, deliberate act of harm used by a teen to maintain power over  a  parent.

Related: Help for parents of children and teens with  Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

Parental  abuse can leave a person feeling embarrassed, ashamed, angry and  terrified.  These emotions are what we call “Parent Paralyzers”:  feelings  that are so intense they overtake  logic and reason. Feelings that leave us  questioning ourselves, trapped in  uncertainty about what direction to take. If  you’re in this situation with your  child, know that it doesn’t mean you are  weak or not intelligent. In fact, many  parents who are the victim of a teen’s  abuse at home are successful in the  workplace or other settings.

Is My Child’s Behavior Abusive?

If your  child or teen is harming you physically, you are being abused. It’s  that plain  and simple. One man raising his granddaughter admitted, “I knew her  behavior  was unacceptable; she would throw things whenever she got mad and one  time she  hit me in the chest with an ashtray. After that, she started throwing  things  with the intention of hitting me. I  just never thought of it  as abusive.” No one wants to believe their child could  be abusive. Emotion can “muddy the waters,” make us question whether or not  things are as “bad” as our  gut tells us they are. Ask yourself: if your child  was anyone else – a  neighbor, a co-worker – would you consider his or her  actions to be assaultive  or abusive? This will help you take the emotion out of  evaluating a  situation.

Related: How to stay calm when your child is acting  out.

Warning Signs of Parental Abuse

Sometimes a situation escalates without us  even realizing it.  The  following are  some potential warning signs that a child’s behavior is bordering  on abusive:

  • Feeling Intimidated.  It’s normal to feel  your child is pushing boundaries to get what he wants. Kids  will ask over and  over for something they want, until a parent can finally  snap, “I told you no!” What’s not typical is  to feel that if you don’t  give your child what she wants, she will retaliate in  a way that is harmful to  you. Intimidation is a way of frightening someone else into doing  something. It may be the words,  the tone of voice or even just a  look.
  • Extreme  Defiance.  Yes, kids can be defiant, even your typical  child. But  when it reaches a point that your child has no respect for your  authority as a  parent, outright defying the rules of your home with no fear or  concern of  consequences, it’s a potential sign of escalation. Many kids can be  defiant  without violence; however, extreme oppositional behavior can be part of  a more  serious picture.
  • An Escalating Pattern of  Violence. Kids  get angry, slam doors, throw things in a fit on the  floor in their room. You  can probably remember a time when you were growing up  that you got mad and  smashed something. But you learned that this behavior  didn’t get you what you  wanted and – in fact – may result in you having to  re-buy things you valued. On  the other hand, if a child or teen’s behavior  continues to escalate to the  point of destroying property, punching walls,  shoving, hitting things near you  or throwing things that “almost” hit you,  making verbal threats or violating  your personal boundaries (“getting in your  space”), this is a pattern that may  indicate abusive behavior.

Related: “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Here’s how  to manage your child’s behavior.

Why Is My Teen Abusive?

When a child or teen turns abusive, it’s natural to ask “Why?” Many  parents  feel guilty, blaming themselves for their teen’s behavior: If I was a better  parent, my child wouldn’t  be acting this way. The truth is, there can be  several underlying factors  contributing to parental abuse including poor  boundaries, substance abuse (by  either a parent or child), poor coping skills,  underlying psychological  conditions (such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder)  and  learned behavior. Some kids behave violently due to poor coping skills.  Others  are more deliberate and enjoy the power that comes from intimidating a  parent.  Remember: we can try to understand what’s going on in any situation,  but there  is no excuse or rationale for abusive behavior.

Responding to Parental Abuse

Aggressive and abusive behavior is not a part of typical childhood  or adolescence. It’s not a stage  that your teen will “grow out of” if you  ignore it. If you’re dealing with  parental abuse in your home, your child is  violating the rights of others. It  doesn’t matter that it’s his parent’s  rights; that doesn’t make it any less  serious or illegal. Your home is the  place where your child will learn how to  interact in the world. He is learning  what’s acceptable…and what’s not. He’s  learning about consequences for behavior  and accountability. One of the hardest  tasks a parent can be faced with is  responding to their own child’s aggression  or abuse. It’s natural to feel torn.  On one hand, it’s instinctual to protect  your child. On the other hand, nothing  can push a parent’s buttons of anger,  disappointment and hurt like a child’s  abusive behavior.  Some days you may feel emotionally stronger  than  others. Only you can decide what you’re able to follow through with at any   given time. Here are some suggestions:

1.  Clearly Communicate Boundaries. Make sure  your  child understands your physical and emotional boundaries. You may need to   clearly state: “It’s not okay to yell or push or hit me.” If you’ve said this   to your child in the past, but allowed her to cross those boundaries in the   past without consequence, she’s gotten mixed messages. Your words have told her   one set of boundaries but your actions (by accepting being yelled at or hit)   have communicated another set of boundaries. Make sure your non-verbal   communication (what you do) matches your verbal communication (what you  say).

Related: Child or teen ignoring, arguing and  disrespecting you?

2.  Clearly Communicate Consequences For Abusive   Behavior.  Tell your teen: “If you hit  me, throw something at me  or otherwise hurt me physically, that’s called  domestic violence and assault.  Even though I love you, I will call you the  police and you will be held  accountable for your behavior.”  Then – again – make sure your actions  match  your words. If you don’t think you can follow through with contacting the  police – don’t say you will. This will only reinforce to your child that you   make “threats” that won’t be carried out. You may choose to provide other   consequences, other than legal, that you enforce. If a friend physically   assaulted you, would you let her borrow your car or give her spending money the   next day? Probably not.

3.  Contact the Authorities.  We don’t say this  lightly or without  understanding how difficult this can be for a parent. Some  parents are outraged  at a teen’s abusive behavior and react: “I’ve got no  problem calling the cops  on my kid if he ever raises a hand to me!” Other  parents struggle, worrying  about the long term consequences of contacting the  police or unable to handle  the thought of their child facing charges. Remember:  if your teen is behaving  violently toward you now, there is the risk that this  will generalize to his  future relationships with a spouse, his own children or  other members of  society. You are not doing him a favor by allowing him to  engage in this  behavior without consequence. (For more on this, read How to Talk to Police When Your Child is Physically  Abusive.)

4. Get Support.  Parental abuse is a form of domestic   violence. It’s a serious issue and needs immediate attention and intervention.   Domestic violence has traditionally been characterized by silence. As hard as   it is, break that silence. Get support from family or friends – anyone you   think will be supportive. If your natural supports tend to judge you and you’re   afraid it will only make the situation worse, contact a local domestic violence   hotline, counselor or support group. For support and resources in your  community, you can also call 2-1-1 or visit, a free and confidential service through  the United Way.

The road to a healthier relationship with your child will very  likely take  time. There’s no shortcut or quick fix. It starts with  acknowledgement of the  issue and accountability. If you’re facing this issue in  your family, we wish  you strength and empowerment.


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