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Parent rage toward teens is not rare

By Laurence Steinberg, Special to CNN
  • Laurence Steinberg says parents killing teen children is rare, but parental rage is not
  • He says adolescents common targets of violence; many instances of abuse unreported
  • He says adolescents challenging parents is normal development, but parents are not prepared
  • Steinberg offers tips for negotiating perilous terrain of parent-adolescent relationship

Editor's note: Laurence Steinberg is the Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Temple University and the author of "You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

(CNN) -- Last week brought the upsetting news that a Tampa, Florida, mother allegedly killed her two adolescent children. Police said she told them they had been "mouthy" to her.

The slayings will no doubt be attributed by most people to some sort of mental illness, and it is quite possible that this is what a medical examination will reveal.

The case is remarkable to us because the notion of a parent taking her child's life is horrific. Yet, although what the police say this mother admitted is extraordinary, what they say she claimed fueled her rage isn't.

Just about everyone who has raised a teenager has been exasperated by adolescent backtalk and incensed by challenges to parental authority. Fortunately, most of us keep our emotions under control, and rarely does parental anger have tragic consequences.

But family violence in households with teenagers is shockingly common. And it is worth pausing for a moment to acknowledge and examine this.

According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some 30% of all victims of physical abuse are adolescents. Young adolescents -- those between 12 and 15 -- are especially likely to be targets, with more than 25,000 official cases of physical abuse in this age group reported annually.

Of course, many thousands of teenagers are victims of parental rage that never results in an official report of physical abuse, and even more are the victims of emotional abuse, or treatment that borders on it.

No parent enjoys being challenged by his or her children, and studies find that constant bickering and squabbling takes its toll on parents' mental health. But it is important to keep in mind that it is normal for conflict between parents and children to increase a bit during the pre-teen and early adolescent years -- often, at an earlier age than parents expect.

As adolescents develop intellectually, they begin to question their parents more. And as adolescents develop emotionally and socially, they understandably want more independence. These changes can be disorienting for parents, who were used to a child who considered them all-knowing and who accepted their decisions, if sometimes reluctantly.

An adolescent may point out -- often correctly -- that her parents are being irritable, short-tempered, irrational, and dictatorial. Very often, parents perceive their teenager as having become more argumentative, when what really has taken place is that she has become a better arguer.

Arguing is inevitable in parents' relationships with their adolescents, but a few simple guidelines can make life easier for everyone. If you are the parent of a teenager, and you are going through a difficult stretch, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Don't confuse readiness to debate with argumentativeness. The reason your adolescent is questioning your judgment and engaging you in endless, tiresome debate is that she is maturing intellectually. Instead of viewing your child as challenging your authority, remind yourself that raising a curious, assertive child is wonderful, not problematic.

• Don't take it personally. It's normal for teenagers to question authority, expose adults' hypocrisy, seek privacy, and crave independence. Instead of seeing your child's emotional growth as the end of your relationship, try to envision how the relationship you have with your son or daughter can be strengthened by your child's new maturity.

• Never use physical punishment. Physical punishment is not only wrong, it's counterproductive. Research shows that beatings do not stop undesirable behavior; on the contrary, they promote adolescent rebellion and aggression. Verbal abuse -- calling adolescents names, denouncing them as no good -- has similar effects. Parents who resort to these tactics are not helping, they are contributing to the problem.

• Postpone discussions when you or your adolescent are angry. When emotions are boiling over, someone is bound to get hurt, psychologically if not physically. Let the adolescent know how you feel ("I'm too angry to talk right now"), but put off discussion and decisions until both of you have calmed down.

• Sometimes families need help from a professional. If you and your adolescent are fighting all the time, or if your arguments escalate into physical violence, your family may need counseling. It is extremely rare for just one person to be the cause of chronic dissension in the family. As the saying goes, it takes two to fight. A good counselor can help you see why you are fighting and how to stop.

Although adolescence can be a challenging time for parents, it doesn't have to be a difficult or unpleasant one. If you know what to expect as your child matures, you'll understand why your adolescent behaves as he or she does, and you'll argue less often.

Your mental health, and your teenager's, will be better off as a result.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laurence Steinberg.