Can Adolescents Act Abusively?

When we think about physical or emotional abuse within parent-child relationships, we often assume that the abusers are the parent/s and the abused are the children or teenagers.  While this is true in the majority of cases, what is rarely discussed are incidents in which adolescents act abusively towards their parents.  While any physical or emotional abuse within a family is unacceptable, the nature of the parent-child relationship makes abusiveness on the part of the adolescent more complex to identify as well as treat.

Parents are often reluctant to admit that their teenager is acting in ways which are abusive due to their own feelings of guilt, shame or a sense of failure.  In some of these cases, the adolescent was exposed to domestic violence or experienced abuse within the family at an earlier age and then repeats familiar family patterns at a later stage.  In other cases, however, no history of abuse exists within the family.

There are several defining characteristics of parent-child relationships which may contribute to the adolescent acting abusively towards his/her parents.  These include:

  • An overly dependent parent-child relationship in which the child feels that he/she has to fiercely struggle for his/her independence.  The abusive behavior on the part of the adolescent is often an attempt to challenge the over-involvement (‘enmeshment’ in psychological jargon) which exists in the parent-child bond.  In many of these relationships, the child is emotionally immature and may simultaneously crave and fear independence.
  • Parents’ difficulty in setting clear limits with their child.  Sometimes this difficulty stems from guilt feelings about their past shortcomings in the parenting realm and can lead them to be unnecessarily permissive with their adolescents.  This, in turn, can lead to a sense of entitlement on the part of the adolescent which consequently increases the likelihood for abusive behavior towards the parents.  In addition, a lack of clear limits often leaves the adolescent feeling insecure.  In these situations, the abusive behavior is the adolescent’s way of telling his/her parents to reclaim their parental authority and reign in the out of control behavior.
  • When the parent views the adolescent’s abusive behavior as being primarily caused by an illness or disorder.  While certain disorders can contribute to aggressiveness on the part of the child, there are usually additional significant factors which influence whether an adolescent will resort to abusive behavior towards their parents.  Unless these factors are addressed, the adolescent may continue acting in an abusive manner, even after the illness or disorder is properly treated.


Adolescents who act abusively towards their parents are often reluctant to participate in therapy.  Often times, though, the abuse can be eliminated when the parents seek out help and begin changing how they interact with their child.

When parents begin to make a distinction between their child and his/her behavior, they are often able to set clear limits with their adolescent and can begin valuing his/her positive qualities as well.  In addition, when parents begin holding their adolescents accountable for their actions, their children typically begin taking on more responsibility and begin behaving in a more age-appropriate manner.


Aviva Zahavi-Asa, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., is a clinical social worker and a certified couples and family therapist who specializes in treating adolescents and their parents.  She provides individual therapy to adolescents, family therapy to adolescents and their parents, and therapy for parents of adolescents.  Aviva maintains a private therapy practice in Efrat and Jerusalem and can be reached for consultations and therapy appointments at 072-3971383.  Services are provided in both English and Hebrew.