Brody wasn’t supposed to have friends over if his mother was out. But one Saturday night, she went out and returned to a giant mess in the basement – made by her 15-year-old and several of his closest friends. She confronted him the next morning:
“How could you do this? How many times have I told you? This is exactly what I knew would happen.”
“But Mom …”
“I don’t want to hear about it. You’ve lost your cell phone for the week.”
“But Mom, it’s not fair. It’s not my fault. They made the mess. They’re usually good kids. I didn’t know this would happen.”
“I don’t want to hear about it. You’ve lost your phone. End of story.”
Brody then spewed an unpleasant string of swear words at his mother as he stormed off into his room.
Now she was mad. She went after him.
“Don’t you dare talk to me that way. I’ve really had it with you. You think you can waltz through your life and there’s never going to be any consequences. Listen to me. Are you listening to me?”
Brody made a move to leave his room, but his mother stood in the doorway, blocking his path. He tried to push past her, but she grabbed his shoulder.
“Don’t you dare leave.”
Trying to get away, Brody pushed her. She lost her balance and fell against the wall.
He bolted from the house and ended up staying at the home of a friend. He didn’t return for three days.
It was bad, but it could have been a lot worse. Someone could have ended up getting seriously hurt.
There is a rule about angry confrontations between parents and teens: Parents should not touch the teens under any circumstances. Don’t grab, don’t push, don’t hit, don’t intentionally block their way, don’t corner them. It instantly makes them too upset, flooding them with intense emotions – anger, hurt, outrage – that they often can’t control.
It is not the same as when they are younger. When they have tantrums when they are little, physically picking them up and moving them elsewhere is not a bad thing at all. Holding them briefly when delivering a stern lecture is not such a terrible thing either, although I believe that hitting little kids is bad.
But with teens, any sort of physical confrontation is a very different thing. It triggers an immediate and deep sense of hurt, violation and rage. In my experience, confrontations between parents and teens that turned physical have created historic rifts in some families that never healed.
A normal part of becoming an adolescent – as a part of moving toward adulthood – is that kids become independent from you in a whole new way. As they develop into a sexual being, they become more of their own private person. It is as though an invisible wall suddenly grows up around them. They develop a different sense of what their physical boundaries are. And they experience angry physical confrontations with parents as a violation of their personal space – a deep physical insult – in a way that they did not when they were little.
So what should parents do? In angry confrontations, keep your distance. Do not get physically aggressive and do not try to physically control their actions.
“But what if he goes off in the middle of the night?” a parent might ask. “What if it’s freezing out, what if he’s out there and he’s really mad? What if he’s stomping around in his room swearing, punches a hole in the wall? He’s done that before.”
If you think it has gotten too out of control, if you are seriously worried about your own or your child’s safety – get help. This often means calling the police. That’s what they’re for: after all, they are trained to help defuse out-of-control situations.
The bottom line is that, with angry confrontations between parent and teen, you cannot always control what the teen is going to do. There is a risk that bad things may subsequently happen. The one thing you do not want to do, the one thing that will always make it worse – much worse – is if you get physical with your teen. It just does not work, and it is dangerous. As mad as you may be, don’t do it.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up.