Teenage violence is on the rise everywhere. What does a parent do if their teenage son is physically violent in their home? How much violence is enough? Where do you draw the line? These are some of the pointed questions that a growing number of middle-aged adults are confronting regarding their teenage children, especially their sons.
Who you speak to and the circumstance you describe will shape and define the response you receive. For the sake of argument, I would like to suggest a "zero tolerance" position regarding any kind of violence. Part of the difficulty with this issue is that we have been too tolerant for too long. Our children should not be exempt from being accountable in this arena.
Too many parents make excuses for their children when it comes to their violent acting out. They make all kinds of excuses and minimize the seriousness of such actions. Physical violence is physical violence. There is rationale that can ever justify a son acting out on his mother.
Too many people have become complacent with pushing and shoving as a means of navigating a conflict. Fighting should never be a means of resolving conflict. There is not a pub or a club that will not experience a fist fight or physical melee during the weekend.
Some reading this will immediately become defensive and say that's not so. However, take a closer look at this behavior. It may get diffused before it erupts into a nightmare, but it nevertheless exists more than we want to admit.
Children are not born to be violent. They learn violent behavior from their parents and those adults in their lives. If a little boy constantly sees his father pushing around his mother and being physical, he is going to grow up thinking he can do the same.
If a child grows up in an environment where all he hears is yelling and screaming, he is going to be a yeller and a screamer.
If the escalating violence is going lessen, we are going to have to act differently. We cannot celebrate violence and physical force as positive responses to conflict, especially within families.
The first time a little child vents his or her anger in a physically violent way on his or her mother, that should not be seen as cute and dismissed. It needs to be addressed appropriately and consistently. The inconsistency in our responses conveys mixed messages and too often condones behavior we vehemently oppose.
If a teenage son and his mother get into a shouting match and the son is driven to push, shove and curse at his mother, that is not acceptable behavior, even if his mother has purposely pushed his buttons. Children need to learn loudly and clearly that no matter what a mother says, it is never justifiable to get physical with her, even if she becomes physical with them.
If a mother is so off the wall that she starts getting violent with her children, then the police should be called. Parents should not be allowed to physically beat up on their children, even if their children are obnoxious and annoying. If a teenage son or daughter physically manhandles his or her mother, then the police should be called. There should not be a double standard.
Calling the police might sound like a harsh response, however violence is a harsh behavior. If parents and teenage children are physically assaulting one another, then the capacity for dialogue and a peaceful resolution without a mandated mediator is bleak. Hopefully the police will abruptly break the violence and the fear of legal intervention will motivate all parties to cease and desist in their provocative behavior. It is not a miracle solution, but rather one strategy that sometimes works.
TJ is sixteen. He is a junior in high school. He is the youngest of three children. His oldest brother is twenty-five, a college graduate and living on his own. His parents are college graduates and are happily married.
In hindsight, TJ's parents will admit that they tolerated a lot of behaviors from their youngest child that they never tolerated from their two older children. With the older two, they saw themselves as strict, clear and flexible. With TJ, they felt they became too soft and flexible. At times, because he was relentless, they felt they were not clear.
Like his older brother and sister, TJ had a weekday and weekend curfew. His parents were always open to adjusting it according to the event or activity involved. All they required was that you had to ask and explain first. TJ never wanted to comply with that expectation. He always felt that he should have the "right" to decide and just inform his parents after the fact. Needless to say, this difference in perspective led to constant conflicts and confrontations. As time passed, these verbal confrontations escalated to physical encounters. TJ always felt justified because he felt his mother "pushed" him too far. In short, he believed that she should have exercised verbal restraint. He asserts that if she had done that, he would never have been driven to get physical with her.
For months the verbal confrontations were increasing as well as the pushing, shoving and being in his mother's face. As the violence escalated, what TJ's parents did not know was that TJ had started smoking pot on a daily basis and drinking on the weekends. When his parents finally discovered this behavior, they were relieved on one level, but devastated on another. They made it clear that this kind of social behavior was unacceptable. Their prohibition only intensified the on-going conflicts and widened the growing chasm between them.
TJ was adamant that smoking pot was his right to choose and that drinking on the weekends was also his choice as long as he didn't drink and drive or act recklessly.
Unfortunately, he was high so regularly that it was difficult to have a calm, non-lethal conversation around these issues. As a family, they were clearly at an impasse on these issues. TJ was not budging and his parents were not compromising.
Thus, the heated conversations continued until one awful winter night. TJ broke his curfew by a few hours. When he came home, it was clear that he was stoned and under the influence. His mother started to question him. He immediately became defensive. One word led to another. TJ started cursing, throwing and breaking things. He punched a hole in the living room wall. His mother responded by threatening to call the police. TJ went ballistic and threatened to throw her through a wall. His Mom did not back down. In the midst of her tears, she said some awful things (that she admits to) to her son. He then crossed the line and started pushing her. She pushed back. He became more enraged and shoved her into the living room cocktail table. She fell backwards, cut her arm and bruised her leg.
Her husband saw all of this unfolding and called the police. In minutes they were there on the scene. They walked in as TJ was continuing to threaten his mother as she lay on the floor. They arrested him.
This family was devastated. They left their son in jail overnight and got an order of protection against him. At his arraignment, the judge forbade him to return home and ordered him to get help.
TJ's story is still unfolding. He is in the midst of trying to get help while living out of his house. Unfortunately, there is not much assistance out there for a sixteen year old boy. His parents are in counseling and realize that they should have handled his abuse in a different way. Their tolerance only enabled his out of control behavior. Their frustration is the fact that the parents of so many of TJ's friends tolerate the pot smoking and underage drinking. Those behaviors were so out of hand that they made TJ unavailable for any kind of real dialogue.
TJ's parents are determined not to give up on their son. They do have the foundation of a good family. Months after that dark winter night, they are finally connecting again, like a family. All agree it is a slow process, but all are determined to heal and become stronger.
Time will ultimately tell.