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Verbally Abusive Child

When Your Child Bullies You

By Amalah

I’m trying to figure out if I missed one of those Mom Memos telling me how to handle this stuff. Part of it is a simple question. Am I supposed to to let mistreatment/lack of respect to me by my child (younger of two boys, age 9y) be that proverbial water off a duck’s back and, when he’s calmed (10 min, 1 hour, day of school or overnight) just act as if nothing happened?

If anyone else treated me the way he treats me, I’d have to confront them. (I have, with him, multiple times) If they continued to treat me poorly I would end up removing them from my daily life. I’m too old to be treated poorly by a so-called friend. But he’s my kid and I can’t exactly avoid him. He can’t apologize in the moment, I know, but if I try to bring it up gently later I discover that his reality/history is totally different from mine. He sees nothing he’s done wrong and bringing it up just starts another fight.

He’d been up for 5 minutes today when he got angry at me for not washing his favorite jeans. I took the bait and asked if he’d put them in the laundry room. BOOM! All my fault. I walked away from the tantrum and went to prep breakfast. Favorite jacket got left at school. He knew this yesterday and I mentioned to him 4 times (afternoon, night, at waking, and at breakfast) that he needed to choose an alternative. Time to leave for school, no coat is “right,” so BOOM! All my fault. Refused to give me a goodbye.

I know he’s a sensitive kid so I give warnings of transitions. I try to give him simple choices. I’ve taught him calming techniques. All I do is try to prevent explosions. I’ve spent nine years walking on eggshells. My husband gets a proportional amount of this, but just isn’t around him as much. His 12yo brother is so laid back he can’t be compared.

I can look back and see how it has changed, but not improved. When he was little, he took his frustrations out on me physically, by hitting, kicking and biting when someone else had upset him. (He’d run home from the neighbor’s to kick me!) We got through that stage and it has gradually become verbal abuse. I really do use the word “abuse” on purpose. I feel like the victim of bullying. I keep going back to the person who hurts me and getting more. I’ve got to stop this cycle before he becomes a teen.

Okay. So you need some help. Your son needs some help. And that help should probably come from a therapist, child psychologist or other “expert” type person. (And I am most emphatically NOT ONE OF THOSE.) You’re absolutely right that this cycle of blame/anger explosions has got to stop, for both of your sakes. He can’t treat people like he’s treating you, he’s got to get his anger under control and make some big leaps in the personal responsibility department, and you’ve got to stop being his unseen and unreported victim. (Since I’m assuming this behavior doesn’t carry over to school and his friends or teachers?) And that whole rewriting history is a big red flag — he’s not going to stop when he’s able to twist and revise what happened and perpetually make it your fault. That’s what abusers do, after all. 

I’m not going to attempt to make any diagnoses via Internet here, especially for a child I’ve never met based on five short paragraphs. I could make a lot of guesses and yammer off a lot of potential acronyms and stuff, but I’m not.  I AM going to empower you to get on the phone TODAY and kick a little ass. For yourself and for your child. You are absolutely right: This is not okay. HE is not okay. But it’s going to be okay.

Call his pediatrician. Call his school and ask to speak with the guidance counselor or school psychologist. Get recommendations for a therapist, child psychologist or center in your area that specializes in special needs children and offers psych evals and therapy. You will probably want to interview a couple possibilities and find someone you feel comfortable with (and can see your son opening up to), someone who has similar beliefs on medication and family involvement. Someone you trust to honor your son’s confidence but also escalate appropriate concerns to you. And you definitely want someone who can give you practical guidance for navigating your son’s moods and how best to consistently respond to his verbal abuse with the goal of SHUTTING. THAT. DOWN.

Listen, one of my kids has a therapist. Anxiety, rigidity, inflexibility, etc. All that stuff. Older family members and strangers like to make grumbling noises about kids these days and their therapists and their designer diagnoses and their lack of butt whoopings and such, but I see it more as the result of increased awareness on mental health issues in children. Not every mental health problem just magically shows up in adulthood, out of nowhere with no warning. (Some do, obviously. Just not all of them.) An adult who suffers from anxiety or depression or defiance or narcissism probably struggled with it as a child, too, in some form or another. And maybe everyone around them just assumed they needed to grow out of it or learn to calm down or get their butt whooped. Maybe what they really needed was an understanding adult to listen to them and help them recognize and cope with the problem, and help their family better cope and support.

In the meantime, I’d suggest checking out a few books, if you haven’t read these already. (If you have, you have my full permission to roll your eyes and offer a sarcastic THANKS CAPTAIN OBVIOUSPANTS at your computer screen.) The Explosive Child, Transforming the Difficult Child and The Difficult Child. There are also a lot of helpful articles here about defiance/disrespect/verbal abuse in children. Your son’s therapist or doctor should also have some handy recommendations to help you navigate the first part of your question, i.e. navigating the day to day with a kid who treats you badly, while he or she works with your son to break the cycle and STOP treating you badly.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Isabel Kallman

    Isabel Kallman

    December 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    I am so sorry that you are going through this.

    Like Amalah, I would suggest getting to a therapist ASAP.  This seems like a chronic issue.  But more specifically I would recommend looking for a therapist with a behavioral focus and specifically look into PCIT (Parent-Child Interaction Training). Here’s a link that explains PCIT:

    In the meantime, I would recommend: 

    1) recognizing your son when he’s “nice” to you by just simply saying, “thanks for being kind to me,” etc.  Even in the absence of meanness you should say something positive (known as “successive approximation”).
    2) be systematic to try to spend 10 minutes each day (no more) trying to have a positive interaction with your child.  What does this look like? your child picks an activity and you speak very little and ask no questions (which your child may see as intrusive).  Just let your child direct you, but don’t tolerate any rudeness.  At the first rude interaction, say that the activity is over (without any emotion– i know, harder to do than it is to write it) and you look forward to playing again tomorrow.   

    Best of luck and please let us know how it goes.


  • MR

    December 9, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Just another person who wanted to say 1) No, you didn’t miss a mommy memo. This is NOT normal behavior. 2) Definitely get a therapist on board to help support you, your son, and your relationship with him. It is not shameful to need help to learn parenting skills EVER, but especially in cases where you feel like you are being bullied by your own child. This isn’t a case of you being a bad mommy, nor where you did something wrong. You just need some new skills and some more assistance. 3) Hang in there. It may not be easy to get there, but it will get better.

  • Cait

    December 9, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Jeez-us. Good luck with that, I have been verbally abused by students and people I work for (long story short had a job working for people with developmental disabilities) but yeah, professional help like ASAP. If you haven’t already, start documenting. Think things like time, place, antecedent (what happened before) behavior expressed and what you did. This can help you (and the professional) look for patterns that it can be hard to see unless you write it down. Obviously make sure you and kiddo are safe before documenting but try to do it ASAP after an incident so its fresh. 

    Be persistent, be vocal and be a mom. You CAN get your child help, one of my favorite people in the world has significant behavior challenges, but with time and consistency can use his words to POLIETLY express his frustrations and get what help he needs. 

    It can be done, You go mama!

  • Helen

    December 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Yes to everything Amalah says. I particularly empathized with what you said about feeling abused – if anyone other than a child had treated me the way my daughter did then it would have been termed abuse, no question. Although things are still far from perfect, getting a therapist has definitely helped.

  • Autumn

    December 10, 2013 at 1:36 am

    Good luck and Hugs!  A good therapist now should help prevent lots of future issues.  Document things as best you can, it really does help someone else identify patterns to better establish a treatment plan.  

    The other suggestion I would give you is don’t let your son know how much his abuse hurts you.  It’s a power trip for him, take away that feeling of power.  Stiff upper lip.  (Until a therapist gives you better advice).  I was bullied on the school bus for over a year at age 7, and one day I started ignoring them.  They stopped in less than a week.  Good luck!  

  • vanessa

    December 10, 2013 at 8:55 am

    yes, a therapist immediately if not sooner. like call today. your son needs help, desperately, and so do you. Get suggestions from your ped, from the school, etc.

  • Jean

    December 10, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Yes, a good therapist will be a tremendous help to you and your son. There may be things going on that you are not aware of at school or elsewhere in life. A good therapist and evaluation will help you a) understand what his issues are (sometimes just knowling makes things easier) and b) will help make the situation better. A great therapist will help you as a parent and your son. It can and will get better but you need to fight for it. You go Mom!

  • dfrost

    December 10, 2013 at 11:27 am

    As a parent with a 10-year old son with similarly abusive behaviour, I really feel for you. We’re in the midst of trying to get a good diagnosis from our local children’s hospital mental health team.

    In our case, they were very quick to call it ADHD and while he may have some of those features, we feel strongly it’s much more than that and his teacher also feels that the ADHD label is not really appropriate. You have to feel very strongly about what you are observing and get good at asking questions, as you may get an initial diagnosis that isn’t right; even so-called professionals can miss things. One of the best things I ever did was keep a log for 30 days, so that I’d have good, detailed examples to share, and also to help with (potentially) spotting any other patterns (around sleep times, diet, other factors, etc.).

    The positive feedback stuff is great, but with kids like these, it doesn’t seem to have the lasting effect that we’re looking for. I know that my son also believes he is right when the rest of the world is telling him flat out that he’s in the wrong (and he still feels this way even when he’s remorseful about the awful behaviour, which he definitely doesn’t feel good about).

    It sounds like you’ve been walking down this road a long time and I know how hard it is. Even with all of the tips that I can offer, there are days when I still feel lost, but I keep remembering to pick myself up and re-orient back onto the task at hand. I hope you can keep doing the same while you get the help you and your family needs. You deserve it!

  • Brittany

    December 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I just wanted to offer my sympathies to the OP and echo everyone else about the benefits of seeing a therapist.  Unfortunately, therapy is expensive and there aren’t a lot of free resources available.  If money is an issue, I would definitely check first with the school guidance counselor and his pediatrician to see if they can recommend anyone.  If you live near a university, sometimes they let their graduate-level psychology students “practice” under the supervision of a licensed psychologist for free or cheap.

  • Ally

    December 10, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    My oldest is like this. The same, all the time. He is 6 and we went back and forth about him outgrowing the behavior and he hasn’t. We just got started with a psychologist and he was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). It scares me and I hate it, but it’s not the end of the world. He is just starting therapy and I am hopeful. I hope you can get some answers and a plan (that made a big difference for me).

    • Isabel Kallman

      Isabel Kallman

      December 10, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      Have you looked into PCIT for your son?

      • Ally

        December 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm

        So far he really only had testing and received the diagnosis. I’m not sure what his therapist will do. We live in a very small town and only have one option for a therapist (other ones are over an hour away). I’m really hoping to do something like PCIT.

  • kat

    December 10, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I have nothing personal to add, other than encouragement and internet hugs. This is tough, and I would imagine one of the hardest parts is admitting that this is an actual thing that needs an actual professional’s expertise. I can only imagine how I would feel if my (now just a toddler) son treated me this way – my heart would just break. I can also only imagine how I would feel knowing that I just didn’t have the skill set to help him through something like this – but you are really strong to reach out for help and admit that you may be out of your depth now. Best wishes – good luck to you and your son!

  • Felicity Marie

    December 11, 2013 at 12:30 am

    First of all, I’m so sorry you are, and have been, going through this.

    My kiddo is only two, but I have a background in psychology, so I’m coming at this from the therapy side of things. I’d like to second the recommendation for PCIT. It’s great, it’s standardized and short-term, and it’s effective. 

    Also, an inexpensive resource is the book 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. It’s written by Thomas Phelan. You can find a used copy on Amazon for $9 or so. Phelan also has a workbook, some DVDs, etc. that you can look into. 

    Hang in there! You can find someone who can help, and you can make things better for you and your son.

  • JMH

    December 11, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    As a mom and a teacher, I agree with the others about getting help for you, your son and your family ASAP…before he starts going through puberty and the hormones make it worse.

  • Diana

    December 11, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    We went through similar issues with my son at age 3. Our therapist recommended PCIT – we never got to this top of the wait list but just reading the materials on pcit sites was hugely helpful.

  • lindswing

    December 12, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    I’m a school psychologist and used to do behavior therapy with children with severe behavior disorders, and I would like to second the recommendation for the book 1-2-3 Magic. It has a strong research base, including with children who have disabilities. It’s quick to pick up, easy to use, and really effective. Other than that, I cannot recommend therapy enough. Good luck! 

  • Annie

    December 12, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Hang in there! We had some behavioral concerns for our son, and had a neuropsychological evaluation done. We recieved a diagnosis that was hard to hear, and it feels a little scary sometimes but STILL. It was incredibly helpful in understanding how our son approaches the world, why, what we can expect, and what kind of therapy he needs. We did some research and went to one of the experts in our city. So worth it. Good luck! You’re not alone. There are people out there who understand what’s going on and know how to help.

  • Sara

    February 19, 2016 at 10:21 am

    My first question is simple:  Is this distempered child throwing tantrums and bullying other kids and teachers at school?  

    If he isn’t, then he’s found a way to manipulate you by bullying you.  He may be jealous of his older brother who, as you said, is calm and laid back.  Temper tantrums and screaming fits thrown at you are one way to get more of your attention. This is telling you a lot about him that you’re missing. 

    Did he throw these screaming fits at the grocery store when you wouldn’t add another box of Choco Crunchies at his demand, even though there were five at home on the shelf?  

    Did you give into that, rather than say “NO” firmly and move on?   If you gave in, you put him in charge instead of being the parent in charge. 

    Note please, that I am not blaming you for anything (unlike your kid) but these behavior patterns start early with something as simple as that – giving in to the tantrum instead of saying ‘NO’ and letting him scream until he gets tired.

    Oppositional Defiant Disorder? How about screaming spoiled brat instead?   What’s next? Tranquilizers instead of getting him to stop on his own?  Have you tried simply turning your back on him and walking away when he throws these fits?  

    He’s desperate for your attention, probably very jealous of his brother who probably gets a lot of praise for the things he does, and this one wants that, too.  And he has quickly learned which of your buttons to push to get what he wants.

    Someone has suggested doing things with him. I agree. Also, when he does things well, a simple ‘Good job’ will go a long way.   Take the time to give him all of your attention, but when he starts another tantrum, just get up and leave.  When he comes looking for you, tell him that you will not spend any time at all with him if he can’t behave himself. 

    Try that kind of parenting.  It may work better than anything else.   

    Spring is coming,  Get a simple kite kit. Let him put his together and help you with yours  and then go fly them together.  

    Do not do this for him.  Let him make mistakes when he does things.  It’s his responsibility to follow the kit instructions, just as it was his responsibility to bring his coat home from school.  

    You will have to do this for a while, and firmly stand your ground when you know that he’s wrong.  Positive reinforcement for an accomplishment and negative for misbehaving – like throwing tantrums – should work.  

    IF not, THEN get a diagnosis.  

    And please remember that you have TWO children who seem to be as different as peas and apples. Do not expect them to be the same kid.  They are not.