My son, who is 17, scares me. He’s aggressive and flies off the handle about everything. I am constantly hiding bruises from being shoved around when I stand up for myself or challenge his behaviour or opinions. Most recently he threw a glass at me that split my head. The sheer aggression and amount of blood frightened us both. Naturally, he was extremely remorseful. I know all abusers are – it’s their pattern. I constantly reprimand him for smoking indoors – he ignores me. I constantly reprimand him about his general untidiness – I admit I am a little OCD. I can’t let up on him as to do so would be admitting defeat and letting him do as he pleases in our home.
Our home is very important to me. I grew up in care and never had a home of my own until recently. What is more, his girlfriend has virtually moved in. She’s a really lovely girl and tries to calm my son down when he goes too far – but I know she’s scared of him too. He has also just dropped out of school. I know he’s hurting. I just can’t reach him and he won’t talk to anyone but his girlfriend about his feelings.
My fear is that I’ve raised a monster who will be a danger to women. I want to ask him to leave if he is so unhappy and despises me so much. However, after working with vulnerable young people for over a decade, I can’t stomach putting my own son out. He has nowhere else to go. He has male relatives, but none he is close to.
His father/my late husband, died eight years ago. Despite being close to his dad, he never really grieved. He refused to talk when we went to counselling sessions, and hates me even mentioning his dad. I feel that a lot of his anger stems from this loss. On top of this, he has told me I was not emotionally supportive when his dad died. It’s true. I withdrew and became rather robotic, trying to get through day-by-day. He also often says he wishes it was me who died. Sometimes I do too, as my husband was the better parent, having being brought up in a loving family by a mother who adored him. I feel very isolated. Where can I turn for help?
It may seem like no one else has this problem but it’s not uncommon.
I just want to make it clear that the advice I’m about to give you would be different if we were dealing with an abusive partner (male or female) but it’s your son we’re talking about and my reply is formed after referring to Family Lives (familylives.org.uk, helpline 0808 800 2222), which deals with situations like yours every day.
“It sounds,” says Sandra Hiller from Family Lives, “as if your son may be struggling to cope with his powerful, un-dealt-with emotions. Anger makes up a large part of any child’s grief, but for a teenager even more so.”
Some men and boys may find it very difficult to express certain emotions, defaulting to anger when they are really scared or feeling vulnerable. Anger is, of course, a normal and natural emotion but it’s how it’s expressed and dealt with that’s important.
Hiller realised that “exploring and finding the root of his aggression may not be easy, especially if broaching the subject could result in an outburst.”
Hiller also wonders if his anger may be linked to depression. There is a useful link at cwmt.org.uk for you to look at: Parents’ Guide to Teen Depression. She also suggests you “may also need to look honestly at how you deal with anger and emotion. You mention your background and how your home is very important to you and you want to protect it, as well as honestly describing how you coped when your husband died. By you emotionally withdrawing and becoming ‘robotic’ at this tragic time, your son may well have felt scared and alone, feeling that he had lost both his parents,” says Hiller.
“It sounds as if he has learned how to deal with his loss by emotionally withdrawing, pushing back his feelings, until now when they have started to resurface. Children often do mirror the way parents deal with emotion or vent their anger.”
Your situation is not hopeless. You seem to have overcome a very difficult childhood to become a successful adult with a job and a home. You have sought help, and you have not repeated the patterns of your life that saw you going into care.
Hiller suggests that your son’s girlfriend may be the key. “Try to encourage his girlfriend to explore with him what goes through his mind when he feels angry: does he notice any physical changes when he starts to feel agitated. What are the everyday triggers for him? Does his temperature rise, muscles tighten, heart rate increase etc. If she could start to encourage him to recognise these signs, he may start to identify that he is about to lose control and be given some strategies to cope.”
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of not dealing with these outbursts until they happen again – almost of not wanting to go there. But the time to talk to your son is when he is at his calmest. A good way to start is to say something like, “What’s it like for you when you get angry” instead of chastisement.
“Teenagers,” says Hiller, “sometimes respond positively if they think you can see things as they do, so try to let him know that you understand that his anger is unpleasant for him too and that you want to help. It’s important for him to realise it’s not wrong to feel angry at times, but he needs to express it in a way that is safe for him, you and others in the family.”
However, when your son does lose his temper, your safety (and that of others present) is paramount, so remove yourselves from the situation or call for help. If he becomes violent, you may have to consider calling the police.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 10 July 2015.