"Express yourself!" "Think it, write it, send it. Now!" "At least my parents aren't involved in a vicious divorce the way yours are!" "You think you're special just because your mother died?" "Don't come to school tomorrow, if you plan to stay alive." "You're fat, you're bulimic, you're a loser." Mean Girls . . . Bad Boys . . . "Hey, is that any way to talk to your therapist?!"
From playground back-talk to schoolyard mean-talk to high-school rap-talk to online death-talk, casual communication between kids pulsates with a verbal brutality that makes most adults wince, turning "the wonder years" into years of anxious vigilance.
And this carries over into the home, where many parents tolerate enormous abuse from kids because they're frozen in place by 30-year-old pop-psychology bugaboos: if kids aren't allowed to freely express themselves, they won't talk and develop proper self-esteem. Yet kids today are verbally abusive, not so much from deep, festering rage or rebellion, which might once have been the case, but because they genuinely seem oblivious to the impact of their own actions on others. They've never been taught that what they do and say actually matters, that laserlike one-liners can deeply wound people. And when you don't have to face the person whom you insult--via cell phone, beeper, e-mail--it's even easier to do. As one 12- year-old told me, "I can say anything I want online because I don't have to see how it makes the other kid feel."
The parental reaction is all too often a post-Freudian, pseudo-Rogerian, Zenlike acceptance of kids' communication. Just about every clever utterance no matter how hurtful, every negotiating ploy no matter how outrageous, every power play no matter how maddening is okay in the name of self-esteem, self-expression, and mental health. Until, of course, the inevitable adult explosion--a blast of unenforceable threats ("You're grounded for life!") or fits of physical force (8 out of 10 parents still believe in hitting their kids). It's clear which is more dangerous, but which is more anxiety inducing: the out-of-control abuse of parents or out-of-control threats by parents?
Both. At home, in school, on the soccer field, or online, kids are rarely asked by adults to feel the impact of their actions. By "regard", I mean that in 21st-century treatment, we need to help a child feel the impact of who she is and understand that what she says to other people makes a difference. It's about turning treatment into a microcosm of interpersonal dialogue in which both participants understand their own experience and their impact on the other.