Parent Feels Abused By Her Children’s Verbal Outbursts

In this episode: Janet responds to a parent who says her kids scream at her, shout orders, complain about their lives, and call her a “rubbish mum.” While she acknowledges her former partner’s emotionally abusive behavior is probably a factor in their behavior, and she believes her kids should express their emotions fully, but she’s clearly fed up. “How much abuse and screaming am I supposed to put up with before I stop acknowledging, stop empathizing, and say enough is enough?

Transcript of “Parent Feels Abused By Her Children’s Verbal Outbursts”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question from a parent who is concerned because her children seem to be abusive in the way that they’re expressing feelings to her. She asks specifically, where is the line where the healthy expression of feelings becomes abusive?

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi Janet, thanks so much for bringing calm and clarity to me as a parent, you’ve saved my skin so many times over many years now, and I just want to say I’m grateful. I wonder if you’ve ever addressed this issue on your blog or elsewhere? What if it’s the very expression of feelings in itself that is the problem? What if we are having to discipline or set limits over the words and attitude a child is expressing? I know you say that all feelings are permitted, that we must give our kids a safe space to show us their ugliest selves to let it all hang out with us. But where’s the line where the healthy expression of feelings becomes abusive?

Some of my children constantly shout at me and tell me what a rubbish mom I am, how terrible their life is, et cetera et cetera. The two youngest very often shout abuse at me along the lines of, “I told you to do it now.” And even worse. I get that I need to stand my ground and maintain the limit but really how much abuse and screaming am I supposed to put up with before I stop acknowledging, stop empathizing and say enough’s enough and I’m shutting myself in the bathroom until you stop.

I admit our situation is a little extreme because my ex-partner was a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic who we left a year ago. So, I fully accept that my kids may well be emulating the dynamic played out in the home in their early years. I’m just never sure where to draw the line between acknowledging and listening to all their feelings about whatever limit I have set and where to demonstrate my personal boundaries of okay, back off now. My ears hurt and I don’t have to listen to your harsh words.

It’s a real tough one, and I want to get it right because my husband was abusive in part due to his relationship with his mother. She is an expert acknowledger and will sit for hours listening to him complaining, rarely intervening with her own thoughts. But just acknowledging and not giving another perspective or standing up for herself when she is the target.

I’m pretty sure you will say that drawing parallels between my partner’s behavior and my children’s is just adding another layer of fear and uncertainty to my interactions with my kids and thereby exacerbating the problem. I’m working on that, but I wouldn’t mind your input on where to draw that line between tolerance and self-preservation. It might be interesting to put it on the blog and see what other people have experienced too.

Thanks so much, Janet. Even just having typed this makes me feel calmer.”

That’s my favorite part of the letter. Writing out our feelings can be clarifying for us and therapeutic. It’s an important tool that we have at our disposal.

One thing I want to say straight off is that I am humbly aware of the limits of this medium, this podcast that I have. I’m very aware that I am going off of a few paragraphs from a parent. She brings up issues that are quite serious. I just want to acknowledge that I can give her some brushstrokes of what I’m seeing here and some recommendations for reframing. But, I hope she has a counselor to speak to or therapist, someone to help her navigate the feelings and experiences that are going on here. That’s true with every note that I get to some degree.

So, having said all that, yes, it can be very hurtful and very challenging when our children express anger or frustration or fear through language or attitudes that seem to attack us. This is never going to be comfortable for a parent. What I would like to help this parent do is understand where her children are coming from and some of the reasons, maybe I don’t know all of them, but the reasons I can see here that this is happening.

What understanding situations does for all of us is it helps us to put them in their place. It helps us to feel less overwhelmed and confused. That’s why approaching situations or thinking about them afterwards with our own curiosity…  at some point, getting to that more neutral place of what’s going on here? Why is this happening? What part might I be playing in it? And what can I do to help, to help my children to feel more regulated in their bodies? To come from more of what Tina Payne Bryson and Dan Siegel call, a “Yes Brain“. I just heard her speak yesterday. So this is fresh in my mind.

That place where they are able to be at their best, to have empathy, to make decisions, be productive in their play. They are clearly not there when they’re having these interactions with their mother, where they’re screaming at her and calling her names and trying to assert dominance with her (which I don’t think it’s what they’re really doing, but that’s how it feels). “Do it now!”

She says, “I fully accept that my kids may well be emulating the dynamic played out in the home in their early years.” Yes, but it’s not just emulating. They have absorbed deeply all of these frightening situations with an abusive alcoholic parent.

It’s very, very daunting to be a single parent. I can’t even imagine how hard that must be. I think she’s brave to have been able to end that relationship and get her children out of that. So, I commend her for the way she’s handling this.

But to understand the situation, we really have to look at the toll that took on her children. The great news here, though, is that young children, especially she mentions toddlers are very, very good at offloading those feelings. They put them right out there. That’s what her children are doing here. It’s like they’re regurgitating these scary feelings. They’re putting them out there, and they will continue to try to put them out there until they feel like they’ve processed these out of their system, and they’re safe again.

I’m sure they do feel safe a lot of the time, but they’re getting touched off in certain situations when they go into these places in themselves, and it’s just flooding out of them. They don’t mean it personally, in terms of their mother, that she’s a rubbish mother. Of course, she’s not. They don’t believe it themselves, but they’re not reasoning in logic and making sense there. I’m sure this mother does know that. This is the mother that they desperately need and adore.

I think we can all relate to some of these feelings. What she says about how terrible their life is. I can relate to that. I have a wonderful life. When I’m down in the dumps or when something triggers me, it can feel like everything is terrible. I’m a grown up person with self-regulation most of the time. Children, they just go there, they go there and they say it and they do it.

In terms of responding, I want to encourage this parent or any parent going through these kinds of situations to rise as tall as she can and herself, which will come again from seeing this for what it is and understanding where it’s coming from. She may still get touched off in the moment, but the more she can remind herself…This isn’t about me. This is about my children going to the depths. None of this is about me.

So, going back to her comment that her kids may well be emulating the dynamic, I would see this as not emulating, but they’re healing themselves from that exposure to these dynamics. They are reflecting them back and releasing them out of themselves. That’s different than emulating, because we can see the vulnerability and the lack of ability to contain those behaviors, and those words. They literally cannot stop themselves from going there right now.

The way to help them do it, again, is to feel safe about them processing these feelings out rather than feeling victimized by them.

Now, to go into some other details here in terms of how this would look when this is happening for this mom: she says they constantly shout at her and tell her what a rubbish mom she is and how terrible their life is. The two youngest often shout abuse at her along the lines of, “I told you to do it now!” She says, “I’m never sure where to draw the line between acknowledging and listening to all their feelings about whatever limit I have set.”

Listening sounds very active to me. It sounds more like allowing myself to feel really open to what you’re saying to me and to be impacted. I’m not sure if that’s what this parent means. But I would not do that when children are releasing these strong emotions in this abusive manner. I would breathe, I would feel my body, I would see it for what it is as soon as possible, from a centered place. Getting that perspective. That’s what all of this is about, the perspective on what’s going on that will gauge our feelings and our attitude.

If we see it as like: Oops, there they go, they’re going off, and we know they’re getting some of this stuff out of their bodies and their hearts, the scary stuff that they absorbed. And they’re lashing it out on me. I’m not going to take this on, but I accept where they are. It’s not about acknowledging again and again, children’s feelings when they go to these states. We might acknowledge once, “Oh, boy, you wanted that, and I said, no. You didn’t like that!” And then we let go of it, because we understand that they’re not in a reasonable state. They’re not in a logical place. Nothing makes sense.

And for this parent and for parents that are working on getting this feeling of just accepting and letting that person have their feelings, not taking them on, it’s probably better to not say so much, not try to talk, not try to acknowledge, to focus more on ourselves. To focus on breathing. Seeing this for what it is. Putting it in its place.

So, for this mum and other parents who are working on this and don’t quite have the feel of what it’s like to accept the feelings without actively listening and acknowledging and getting sucked in, I would not talk. I would just, again, breathe and focus and remind myself what is really going on here. I’m talking like that’s maybe easy, and I know that it’s not easy to do.

Some of you might want to listen to or read the transcript of the podcast that I did with my sister-in-law, Challenging Moments With Kids: How To Keep Our Cool. She’s a therapist, and I found her feedback really, really helpful. A lot of other parents did too.

This mother says in the beginning, “What if we’re having to discipline or set limits over the words and attitude a child is expressing?”

There is no productive way to do that. Because when we’re trying to put reason and logic onto expressions that have nothing to do with reason or logic, a child isn’t in that part of their brain, then we can actually just magnify the behavior and give it more power.

Think of it this way: our child is just trying to let go of something. By having our own emotions around that, we’re actually giving our child more fear and discomfort to process. What will help in the bigger picture is for us to allow them to vent. We want to hear the feelings almost. That’s maybe not where this parent is yet, but that’s the next step: to empathize.

If we understand what this is, we can’t really get angry at our children either for the words they use. Oftentimes, it doesn’t necessarily come straight from the parents that they’ve heard this. They can hear it from other children they’re exposed to, or that their sibling was exposed to and then their sibling exposes them, but there’s always a reason. There’s always a reason. But the reason is not that they have a rubbish mom or that they have a terrible life, literally.

She says, “I’m just never sure where to draw the line between acknowledging and listening to all their feelings about whatever limit I’ve set and where to demonstrate my personal boundaries of, okay, back off now. My ears hurt.”

Depending on what these children are saying, if they say, “I told you to do it now,” for example, demanding that she does this or that, I would absolutely have personal boundaries there in terms of… you’re not going to jump up and go get it for them and rush along like they’re your boss, and you’ve got to scurry and do what they want or they’ve told you something logical. Nor would I be offended by that. I would see it as here’s my child regurgitating feelings and attitudes and scary things that she’s taken in. I’m going to wait until the feelings have passed. I’m not going to act like that behavior is true.

If they don’t seem actually in a tantrum, then I would say, “Wow, you’ve got a strong feeling and you want me to do that.” I would still only do what I would have done in the time that I would have done it. So, that’s accepting their view, while still holding on to myself which, yes, can still be tiring, but not nearly as tiring and invalidating and painful and hurtful and uncomfortable as letting my children abuse me with their regurgitations.

If she feels that she’s losing it, I would maybe move for a moment and walk away. Depending on the age of the child, I would certainly say from ideally a place of acceptance, “I’m going to go over here…” Going to a place where we can compose ourselves for a minute or two, but not with a lot of angry emotion.

Going back to his mother, she says that her husband was abusive in part due to his relationship with his mother. “She’s an expert acknowledger and will sit for hours listening to him complaining.” From this, I obviously don’t know what’s really going on there. But I don’t think that the husband’s behavior could just be about his parent being an expert acknowledger. I don’t think that that alone is the issue. If she has fear around that… I am supposed to do something, because if I don’t do something, I’m going to be like my husband’s mother, and then I’m going to create this issue… I feel pretty confident about alleviating that concern.

Then she says, “I wouldn’t mind your input on where to draw that line between tolerance and self-preservation.” I don’t see this as a line between tolerance and self-preservation. I see this as self-preservation, for sure, and that’s what I would work on for this parent. But also understanding what these behaviors are and what they mean and where our children are in their minds when they are exhibiting them. I would be tolerant and I would have self-preservation. But I wouldn’t tolerate “do this now,” and now I go do it. I would see “do this now” as part of the emotion that I only need to let be and trust.

I hope some of that makes sense. This was kind of a complicated one. Thank you so much for this mom for reaching out to me. I’m so glad her writing it out made her feel calmer, and I hope that I was able to maybe a little bit help her feel even calmer yet.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or you can go to the books section of my website. Or you can go to the books section of my website. can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in E-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and apple.com. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble an apple.com.

Also, my exclusive audio series, Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents discussing their specific parenting issues. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio.com. You can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20. Sessionsaudio.com

Thank you for listening. We can do this.

8 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I needed to hear this. Recently my mother told me that I needed to discipline my preschooler who would at times angrily try to pull me to the living room to play with him during dinner while she was visiting even after I repeatedly told him to stop. I would then respond by leaving to my bedroom to get away from him. Eventually he would want a hug which I would give him but also let him know that I don’t like being pulled from my seat during dinner. He’s actually stopped doing this but my mother believes that he needs to be taught to respect his elders and be punished with a timeout or spanking. I was raised this way and I hated it. I don’t take my son’s behavior personally. My mother is convinced that I need to stop his angry outbursts by the time he’s 5 yrs old or else he’ll be permanently an angry kid who is disrespectful of adults. While I believe as he gets older it will be easier to reason with him. This has been my experience so far.

  2. avatar Elizabeth says:

    I understand the premise, but I feel like I would have a really hard time dealing with outbursts like this from older children. It comes across as incredibly disrespectful behavior. I was spanked as a child, and while I am planning on not doing this with my child (he’s only 1), I really am not sure how I would handle this. She never mentions the ages of her children, but after a certain age, I’m not sure I could just let certain tones/comments roll off my back. I feel like this will be really difficult for me as time goes by, even though I know I want to parent differently from how I was raised. But I also like children knowing they should NOT speak to others in a certain way. I feel like a 4-year-old yelling at you is way different than a 10-year-old. Thoughts?

    1. I also don’t know how I would/will deal with this from older children. I am starting to feel lack of patience already and he is only about to be two. It’s a real struggle to NOT go down the familiar path parenting.

  3. Hi Janet, I love your articles & respectful approach to children but I too am really struggling with this. I have a 7 year old daughter & am totally at odds at what to do with her increasing swearing, yelling & demands on her Dad & me. She is an only child so no siblings to have issues with, no changes in our lives, 2 loving parents that spend lots of time with her etc. Not to say that she doesn’t of course have emotions & struggles just being a 7 yr old so not trying to minimize it, just that there hasn’t been any events I could pinpoint, such as the family in the article, that could explain the behavior. I can totally understand that she may react with yelling & swearing when she is told ‘No’ or has to do something she doesn’t want to do (which is exactly how she does react!) but it is behaving in this exact same way just to general conversation e.g. ‘Would you like toast or cereal for breakfast?’ & the response ‘NO! I hate toast & cereal you f**king idiot!’, or ‘Would you like to go for a bike ride together?’ & the response ‘I hate going on my bike you f**king idiot, f**k, s**t!’ Obviously we don’t speak like this to each other or to her & initially it was just sometimes to her Dad but now it is every day multiple times a day & also to me. It’s like we condoned the behavior by ignoring the swearing & not making an issue about it, while trying to use the ‘Wow you have strong opinions about that’ or ‘That’s interesting’ as you suggested on other articles, to which she response with more swearing, & it seems to have made the behavior increase more & more so it has become a habit & is her default response anytime she doesn’t like a question we ask, a comment we make or sometimes basically any time we speak. She isn’t like this all the time of course but it definitely is a daily behavior now. I struggle with the thought that I am failing my parental duty to guide her & prepare her for interacting with others in the world & I should be setting a boundary as I certainly wouldn’t let others speak to me like this. But the way I am reading it is that you shouldn’t ever try to suppress expression, have I got the wrong take on it? Help!

    1. Thanks, Rachael. This is tough for me to unravel without knowing more about your dynamic and how/when she started using this language, etc.

      1. Thanks so much for replying Janet. Hope I can give you the info you need so you can please provide some suggestions as I’m desperately wanting to restore our home to one we all enjoy being in.

        We generally have a very good dynamic, she is a strong willed, energetic, intelligent girl who does push boundaries but also has a very caring nature. I grew up with authoritarian parents who smacked so I knew I didn’t want to parent like this, so have always tried to bring my daughter up with RIE principles since I first learned about them when my daughter was around 6 mths old. I have tried to give her as much freedom as possible & make her own choices to build her independence & she certainly is a very independent child who freely speaks her mind to us. If anything I’m probably guilty of not providing enough boundaries in response to trying to never be the authoritarian parent.

        The swearing has been slowly building over 8 mths or so; first just the odd word, to just when she was really angry, to now every single day we get a string of swear words multiple times a day often shouted at us whenever she doesn’t like a request to do something, or a small comment we make or just general conversation. It seems to have become the way she now addresses us, it almost feels like a challenge from her “What are you going to do about it? You don’t do anything & I can do & say whatever I like!” & she now does it frequently in front of her friends that she has over for play-dates. Often a while later she will be a calm, loving girl again, then at the drop of a hat she’ll swear & yell at us again. Which is why I feel I should have nipped this in the bud earlier as she may be looking to us to provide the guidelines (which we don’t seem to have done, other than modeling the way we want her to speak but we’re far from perfect!) . Also after reading your multiple articles & listening to some of the podcasts I’ve been under the understanding that she should be allowed to freely express herself & swearing is not a big deal although I also am confused & question does this fall under our ‘personal feelings matter too’ & so we should take steps to stop this behavior as it is something both me & her Dad find very hard to live with.

        Her Dad has always just let me lead with the parenting style & although not really on-board with using RIE, has followed along although seems to be blaming it as not having worked & is getting more frustrated with the behavior now it is at this level & has started shouting at her as well in attempts to get her to ‘behave better’. I don’t want their relationship to break down so really need to find some way through.

  4. In my opinion there is a missing piece – talking with the kids afterwards and teaching them the appropriate expression of emotion and communication skills. Also it seems like this parents boundaries have been severely crossed (she writes that she feels abused) and she’s searching for some validation that its ok to respectfully and kindly signal it to the kids. That might mean “That tone/ those words don’t feel good to me” or “when you ask me like that I don’t feel like doing it” etc.

  5. avatar Sabrina Landazuri says:

    I did not intend the comment that follows to be this long!

    This post is exactly what I was looking for. I was babysitting the girl I nannied from age three months through over two years and with whom I have continued to have a really sweet, close relationship. Of course my role is quite different from someone who sees to her upbringing daily. (I discovered RIE within a few months of my time with her, so your blog has provided clarity in my interactions with her since respect and treating children as human is my goal.)

    Anyway, while babysitting the other night I noticed she began to react to me not knowing something (about her favorite tv show, the exact order of her bedtime routine etc) with might be called a disrespectful tone. Her mother calls it her getting “sassy.” I let it go without comment other than admitting I did not know these things the first few times. Then, when it kept coming more and more, in a very calm but serious voice I said, “Please stop speaking to me like I am stupid.” (I wasn’t sure if she knew the word condescending and wanted to be understood.) “I would like you to please find another way to talk to me.” I know her talking in this manner probably comes from an emotional place, such as the frustration that our playtime was over – perhaps I should have acknowledged that. But, for all I know not to take this kind of thing personally, her tone obviously triggered something in me for me to word it this way. I don’t feel my self esteem shattered in the least, but wanted her to know I would not accept this treatment, which I feel is hurtful in the same way we would block arms from hitting or legs from kicking (“i won’t let you hit/kick me”) even if we are not seriously threatened by a young child’s physical lashing out.

    She did indeed stop and really think about what I said. It’s likely she had never heard her words framed like that. She is a very kind girl.

    I’ve been tossing this interaction around in my head ever since, wondering if I asked her for something that was developmentally emotionally appropriate – she is certainly has a good deal more control than a toddler, but also easy to see as more mature than her age due to her precocious verbal and intellectual abilities. I would love some feedback on how much of what I said was my own baggage unfairly dumped on her, and how much was I guided by my feelings to set an appropriate boundary. Was it any better than a sharp “Watch your tone, young lady!” Or a self-righteous demand for respect and quiet obedience? How much “sass” should go without comment for the sake letting feelings be expressed, and at what age might it change? Is it different for someone who is not in a parent/daily nanny role? This would definitely help me with other kiddos I help care for…

    I would also be very grateful for more specific responses to being given orders by kids of various ages. It’s one thing to, at an unrushed regular pace, provide care-related actions no matter the tone of the request. Also, unreasonable demands I know to acknowledge that they want this, maybe reallllly want it, then tell them that’s not what’s happening (dealing with whatever emotional fallout of the boundary with emotional validation.) But what about a totally optional random request for making her a bed on the floor (when she can move blankets if she wants to) given in the form of a command, or ordering me to fetch something across the room that rolled away from him, a perfectly mobile two year old, that my desire to help evaporated with the command? It seems petty to say “no” when I had been prepared to help or play that way. What words would you use for something like that?

    Regardless of you replying to me personally, thank you for taking on the topic of this post and so many others.

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