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Children showing abusive behaviour

Violence towards parents or other family members by young people is more common than many people think. It's not often talked about because parents can feel embarrassed, scared or alone. They can feel as if they have lost control in their own home.

It is important not to ignore the violence or other types of abuse, and to keep yourself safe. It can help to take action early to prevent or avoid violence.

When should I be worried about my child's behaviour?

It's normal for parents and young people to disagree and have conflict or arguments at times.  However, if a young person is abusive or violent, it is more than conflict.   It is an attempt to control and have power over you or others in the home. It can happen in families of any culture, religion or situation in life.

A young person may frighten, threaten or hurt you by swearing, calling you names, yelling, pushing, hitting, spitting or kicking. They might throw or break things, or punch holes in walls. Sometimes they steal money, run up debts or demand things you can't afford. They may hurt pets or damage property.

They can threaten to run away or harm themselves if you don't give in to them. They might threaten you with knives or other weapons.


Why do they do it?

Young people can use abuse or violence for a number of reasons.  It's more common for adolescent boys to be violent toward their mother, especially if they are the sole parent, but this isn't always the case.  If a young person has seen violence between parents, or a parent has been violent toward them, they may believe it is normal.

Violence or abuse can be a sign they:

  • Haven't learnt to control or manage feelings, especially anger.  They act out their feelings without using any self-control.
  • Haven't learnt to deal with the stresses of life, to solve problems or cooperate.  They might think it's their right to have all their demands met above others (sense of 'entitlement').
  • Don't value or respect other people, or their property
  • See a parent, often the mother, as weak and powerless or think it's OK to treat women this way
  • Are affected by alcohol or drugs.  Some drugs can trigger psychosis (being out of touch with the real world) and violence.

Violence towards parents or other family members is not okay and in some cases can be a crime.  Everyone has the right to feel safe and be respected, including parents.


What can I do about it?

Set limits

Limits help both children and young people feel safe and secure and to know what is expected of them.  As young people mature, limits need to be adjusted to enable them to become more independent.  It is important to remember, parents need to be in control but there is a difference between being in control and being controlling.

When you are both calm and relaxed, it helps to:

  • Set 'house rules'.  Be clear about what things they can decide for themselves, what things you will decide, and what things are household decisions.
  • Talk about what behaviours are OK.  Let them know what you will do if they become violent or dangerous.  They may need to leave the house, either by agreement or by you calling the police.

Use consequences

To become mature, young people need to learn to accept the consequences of their choices.  If they haven't had to face consequences for abuse or violence they might see no reason to stop.  They may continue to be violent in future relationships.  Consequences send a clear message that you won't put up with violence. It also helps you feel more confident as you take back your right to be the parent.

It is important to:

  • Start small and focus on one behaviour which needs modifying/changing, eg instead of trying to stop your child swearing, think about focusing on one swear word
  • Try to think about a consequence to put into place if your child uses that particular swear word
  • Your child must be informed of the consequence so they are mindful of what will happen if the behaviour continues
  • It is vital that the consequence is used at all times once it has been set.  This may be very difficult to maintain but it is of upmost importance or behaviour will not positively change
  • Reflect on and recognise positive behaviour and let your child know when they have presented good behaviour.  It is easy to focus on abusive and violent behaviour but is also important to recognise and reinforce the positives.

However, if they are violent, there is no negotiation.  Consequences help young people learn they are the ones choosing to use violence - they can't blame others.

Know the triggers

Notice what happens before your young person gets aggressive or abusive.  They might lash out when they are stressed or frustrated, when under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or when there is conflict.

  • If arguments trigger abuse or violence, look at what causes fights. What happens as a fight brews? What are the warning signs?
  • When these signs are present, make sure you act early and give each other space
  • If you need to leave the house, take other children so they are safe
  • If alcohol or drugs contribute to violence, have clear rules about your young person not being in the house when affected by substances
  • If violence or abuse is out of character, think about what else may have happened or changed for them.  Has anyone new had contact with your family?  Have there been other changes in the family, or upsets with friends?

Help young people find ways to manage their feelings and deal with stress.  They might want to talk with a trusted adult or youth counsellor.

Strengthen your relationship

It can help to work out ways to build your relationship.  Work together at making the relationship more important than any differences you might have. You could:

  • Let them know you love them and all the good things about them
  • Notice what they do well and talk with them about it
  • Spend time talking and getting to know their interests
  • Talk about problems only when you're both calm

Take action to stop the violence

It is important to take control early. It's also important to plan what you will do in an emergency.  You could have:

  • A list of people you can call for help
  • A safe place you can go and take other children
  • Spare keys for your home and car, and some cash in a safe place in case you need to leave in a hurry 

Look after yourself

Dealing with violence in the home is difficult and stressful.  Recognise positive changes, even if they are small steps.  Taking early action can help you feel more confident as a parent. It sends a clear message that you won't put up with violence.


Is there support available?

Who's in Charge parenting programme

  • For people in Kings Lynn
  • An eight-week course for women combining educational and therapeutic sessions for parents of children who are verbally and physically abusive and beyond parental control.
  • The aim of the programme is to reduce parental stress and guilt by providing a supportive environment and it seeks to offer an opportunity for parents to change their own attitudes and behaviours towards abusive children.
  • Referrals only through Pandora Project (opens new window).

Family Lives (opens new window)

  • 0808 800 2222
  • Confidential helpline, live online chat, email support service and forum community.  Online parenting courses and advice videos.

Young Minds Parents Helpline (opens new window)

  • 0808 802 5544
  • Helpline for parents or carers concerned about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of children and young people.


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