My son’s abusive behaviour is affecting my mental health

Ask Ammanda violent teenage son

My son from the age of about 16 has been verbally abusing and shouting at me. He gets so angry, he smashes things up in the house, ripping the doors from their hinges, throwing things at me.

He has always been a sensitive child and I believe he still is but he appears to have such a hatred towards me. It’s heartbreaking and I’m on verge of a breakdown. It’s making me ill. I had to give up my job last year due to anxiety.

I have brought him up alone since he was ten. His father was always working or in the pub and had a short fuse and was physically abusive towards my son. He’s been through a lot: his parents splitting up, both grandparents who he was very close to dying when he was aged 8 and 15. He dropped out of school when his 16 year old cousin was stabbed to death.

I have always tried to persuade my son to seek help but he’s not accepting of it. He rants about the past and says things are my fault. We had such a good relationship till he was about 16, when I told him he needed to get a job. Now I am too anxious to speak to him because if I say something he doesn’t like he starts an argument.

Ammanda says…

This is really concerning on so many levels. I’m sure the desperation you feel about his behaviour must be overwhelming. I’m not surprised about your work either. Having this kind of problem at home and holding down a job at the same time is almost impossible. Here you are, trying to do your best by him but finding yourself consistently thwarted – and indeed, abused – when you try to intervene to help him.

From your description, I think your son needs significant professional help. You talk a lot about his behaviour as a teenager (and I believe we should always be careful not to demonise young people for their actions growing up), but he’s an adult now, so this is in a different league. It sounds like a frightening descent into potentially very serious actions on his part – and it has to stop.

I can see from your much longer original letter that you’ve shared these problems with other professionals, but that what they’re telling you – to call the police when he gets violent – doesn’t sit well with your efforts to be a loving mum. But although the advice you’re getting from them sounds hard, they’re correct. I know this is terribly difficult to hear, let alone to bear, but until this cycle of abuse is broken, nothing is going to change.

By involving the police, you will be doing two important things. Firstly, you’ll be prioritizing your own safety. When faced with this kind of behaviour in families, many people feel they want to keep things ‘in house’ and somehow get their partner or family member to change. Unfortunately, this rarely ever works because the person who needs to address their behaviour has not yet taken full responsibility for it. As I say, he is an adult. He needs to be treated like one. This means him being expected to address his actions, rather than his mum bearing all the responsibility for trying to make things better. Given the level of anger you’re experiencing, telling him this on your own would be likely to put you at significant risk of serious harm – and I don’t recommend it – so involving the police would mean he’d be getting the right message without you risking your own safety.

Secondly, you will be showing him a boundary. You’ve told me that he always respected these when he was younger, but I want to quote back to you something else you wrote in your longer letter: ‘Obviously there is a reason I have done something at some point to make him act this way towards me’. I want you to understand that you have not made him behave like this. It’s really apparent that you’ve tried so many ways of supporting him, even when things were really difficult for you with other issues going on. Sometimes, what happens is that in our efforts to be really supportive, we stop making it clear that, beyond a certain point, we cannot tolerate any more. Involving the police will probably make him accuse you of all sorts (although that’s already happening), but it will also show him that you mean business. Again, in your longer letter you say there have been similar problems in his behaviour towards girlfriends. This is really worrying. He must start to recognize how he’s acting – both towards you and them – now falls completely under the banner of domestic violence and abuse.

I completely appreciate how difficult some of his experiences must have been growing up. But none of them excuse what is happening now. The fact is: only he can stop his actions.

In your longer letter you also mention he smokes cannabis. Obviously, there are different views out there about the effects of long term use and I’m definitely no expert on this topic, but I do wonder to what extent his smoking may be fuelling some of the behaviours. The severity of his actions also makes me wonder whether there may be mental health issues involved in all of this too – which the cannabis could be making worse.

I understand how you’re hoping that if you can get to Family Counselling, you might get the chance to understand what has happened and reclaim the son you love so much. But, although I can’t say this would definitely not be the outcome, on the balance of probabilities, I think it’s really unlikely. This is because Family Counselling requires that everyone present is able to at least listen to what the others are saying, even if they don’t agree with them, and I see no evidence of this happening in the situation you describe.

I can imagine you feel that my answer is very negative. However, I’m trying to help you see that the change needed here is a fundamental one. Because he is no longer a child, you both need to shift perspective and re- evaluate your mother/son relationship. Again, he’s adult, not a teen. You need to accept that he must address his issues himself, because, although he is hurting, he is also being highly abusive. The best thing you can do, hard though it may be, is to make connections with agencies who deal with domestic abuse. They will help you to address your own safety and give you space to process the terrible emotional pain that you understandably experience. 0808 200 247 is the Freephone number for the National Domestic Violence Helpline. Please, call them. They’ll listen and they’ll do their best to help you.

I’d like to end on a really challenging note. You may need to recognise that the continued support you keep trying to offer may well be maintaining the current status quo. Let’s be quite clear: I’m not saying you’re in any way responsible for his actions. As I’ve said, you’re not. But, sometimes the dynamic of a relationship needs to change before people realise that the way they’re behaving isn’t ok. Taking the actions that I and others have suggested may turn out to be the catalyst for you son’s shift in perspective. This is really tough love, but it’s necessary – because you cannot go on as you are.

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