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.