Relationships, You & Your Family

Abused and powerless?

It is time to take charge

It sounds like a tongue-in-cheek question: “Is there a law protecting parents from being abused by their children?”

Increasingly, this question is being asked, not of abused elderly parents, but in the context of parents in their forties and fifties, with abusive children in their pre-teen and teenage years. The abuse could be physical, like hitting, kicking or threatening their parents with knives. Then there is emotional abuse like calling them names, shaming them in public and withholding love and cooperation for household chores, homework or school attendance. Some children are psychologically abusive, e.g. threatening to harm themselves if they do not get what they want.

What do these children want, you may wonder. Some may want things like the latest smartphone and gaming apps, or privileges like more play or computer time. Their wants and needs may appear different but essentially boil down to wanting more control and doing what they enjoy.

Psychologists tell us what these children are craving for ultimately is a deeper connection with their parents. This may be at odds with what some parents say—that when they attempt to connect, their children show no interest or even reject them. With these children, it may be that they had sought attention sometime earlier in their lives but were rebuffed, perhaps because the parents were too stressed and tired, or not attuned to their children’s needs. Now that the parents are ready to connect, their children are not. The best time to attend to our children is not when we are ready but when they need us.

To make sense of the negative behaviours, we need to examine parents’ responses. Some adopt strict discipline. If this had been done consistently from the child’s early years, there may be less blatant challenging of their parents’ authority—if “the law” had been laid down clearly and firmly from the beginning, most children would abide by it. From time to time, the children may slip into mischief and misconduct, but a firm reminder of what is acceptable and what is not would likely bring them quickly in line. The key word here is “firm”, as opposed to “harsh” or “angry”. When discipline is done in anger, its intent is unclear to the child and they only learn to obey but not to respect authority.

Parents who find their authority challenged or are held to ransom by their children’s abusive demands are more likely to be those who had not been consistent in their parenting. They may have started out allowing their children to decide for themselves what they wanted. In time, on realising their children’s misguided choices, they start trying to influence their children’s choices.

They may first attempt to use persuasion or reasoning. However, if a child of six or seven has had their own way most of the time, they would be less likely to surrender their autonomy and bend to the will of others. Other parents may attempt to use bribes or incentives. The limitation to this strategy is that the well of incentives may dry up, and when the children become demotivated, what they would likely do is to show more of their displeasure.

When their children’s behaviour fails to improve, some parents turn to professionals—teachers, tutors, career coaches, counsellors and psychologists. When these front-line professionals do not get the desired compliance, some parents resort to threatening to send the children off to boarding school or to Boy’s Town, or to calling the police.

Calling the police was what an anxious and desperate parent did when his 11-year-old displayed aggression at home. He did this three times within the last year. This parent, himself a trained counsellor, had called me for advice on getting his son to go to school. His son’s intermittent school attendance in 2019 had all but stopped (COVID-19 situation aside) during the past nine months.

After checking for reasonable causes, such as trauma experienced in school, I encouraged him to take charge of his son. I suggested that the very next morning, he give this son the choice of going to school either on his own or be carried to school. As this boy was just a little shorter than his father, I suggested enlisting the older brother’s help.

Morning came and the boy refused to go to school. To the credit of the father, older brother and the mother too, they carried him—in his sleepwear—to school (thankfully, it was a walk of just a few minutes). On reaching the school gate, they set him on his feet and handed him his school uniform. The boy was upset to be treated this way but went to school on his own accord in the days following. By taking charge and being firm, they asserted parental authority over their son.

Sadly, not many parents are willing to take this route. Such families may consequently endure years of emotionally-draining fights and the children may grow up embittered and angry. If they express abusive behaviour on others who will not stand for it, they will find doors to relationships and employment closed and doors to prison open to them.

Asserting parental authority is ultimately the best response to children who test boundaries and show disrespect. Children must learn to respect boundaries and develop the capacity to moderate their emotions and behaviour. Parents who feel overwhelmed can work with child and adolescent professionals on their children’s objectional behaviour. The key phrase here is “work with” and not “work in place of” the critical role both parents need to play. Parents should be parents.

If you feel overwhelmed by your child’s demands and this article has spoken to you, will you resolve to take control of parenting your children this new year?

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.