Disrespectful Child or Teen? Things Not to Do as a Parent
Eye–rolling, curses and insults, backtalk, name calling, ignored requests, snide comments: disrespect from your child or teen comes in many different forms. If you’re struggling with disrespectful behavior from your kids, you’re definitely not alone: this is one of the biggest topics of conversation on Empowering Parents each week.
The truth is, disrespectful behavior is one of the inappropriate ways kids, especially teenagers, try to solve their problems. Kids can feel powerless in the face of rules and expectations, and talking back and showing disrespect is one way they try to take some power back. If they can drag you into an argument, that’s even better: now you’re arguing about respect instead of focusing on their curfew or their homework!
“You can’t demand respect, but you can require that your child acts respectfully, no matter how they feel about the situation.”
The reasons behind disrespectful behavior include the perfectly normal and healthy process of your child growing up and away from his identity as a younger child. Teens naturally seek more independence as they get older, and mild disrespect is one way that independence gets expressed.
But as James Lehman writes: “While it’s important to allow for the natural ‘breaking away’ process that comes during the teen years, parents also have to be sure to identify and challenge any truly disrespectful child behavior that is hurtful, rude, or demeaning to others.”
So while it may be healthy and normal in some cases, disrespectful behavior isn’t something you want to let go unchecked. In fact, ignoring it completely can actually cause disrespectful behavior to escalate.
What else increases disrespectful behavior in teens?
Here are five almost guaranteed ways you can unknowingly encourage disrespectful behavior in your child – and what you can do instead:
1. Take everything personally. Over-react. Pretty much every teenager pokes relentlessly at their parents, expressing their frustrations in various ways. Eye rolling, scoffing, smirking – those are all tools in the teenage arsenal that convey their disregard. And as we all know, those mild, irritating behaviors can really get under your skin. Kids are looking for those weak spots, those places where they can drag you into defending yourself or your rules. If you take it personally, it’s going to be really hard to respond effectively. If you react to every single one of those behaviors, you’re not likely to see any change in your child. While these things are annoying, they aren’t necessarily something to correct. James Lehman talks about ignoring the little disrespectful things your child does – especially if she’s otherwise complying with your rules. The kid who mutters under her breath as she stomps off to do as she’s told is behaving like a typical, normal kid. It’s when your kid treats people badly while refusing to comply with expectations that you need to jump in and correct the behavior. (The EP article Disrespectful Child Behavior goes into this in more detail.)
- What to do instead: Decide which behaviors you’re going to focus on, and which you can ignore. Remember that those mildly irritating behaviors aren’t about you, they’re simply an expression of frustration. Your role is to deal with your child or teen’s behavior as objectively as possible. It doesn’t mean you won’t be irritated! Just find ways to handle that emotion away from interactions with your child, if possible. Let it go, and stay focused on the topic at hand.
2. Bad mouth other people. Life is stressful sometimes: bosses are challenging, neighbors get too loud, family members can be irritating. As a parent, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to show your kids how you manage your behavior when you’re annoyed or upset. Kids “watch us for a living,” as the Lehmans say. If you talk badly about others or treat other people with disrespect, don’t be surprised if your child follows suit.
- What to do instead: Parents have to role model better behavior for their kids. Remember, they’re watching you, even if they don’t seem like they care what you do. If you value respect, model respectful behavior. Do your best to show them the way it should be done.
Take your child’s side. Wait, what? What does taking your child’s side have to do with disrespectful behavior? Let’s say your child complains about how much homework he has, calling the teacher names and generally being disrespectful toward her. You might agree that this particular teacher does give too much homework. If you take your child’s side in this case, you might say you agree that you think the teacher is stupid, and that she’s doing a terrible job. You agree that your child doesn’t have to do all that homework because clearly, the teacher is wrong. When you side with your child, in effect joining them in disrespectful behavior, you’re showing them that you don’t have to be respectful to someone you disagree with. The message your child hears is: If you think someone is wrong, then you have a right to be rude.
- What to do instead: The truth is, neither you nor your child have to agree with someone in order to treat them respectfully. Even if you think the teacher (or the coach, or the boss, etc.) is wrong, let your child know that regardless of how they feel, they still need to find a way to act appropriately. One added bonus of this approach? Your child will most likely encounter plenty of people in his adult life he disagrees with. Help him learn the skills he needs to handle those disagreements in a calm and appropriate manner.
3. Never notice their good behavior. Maybe you’re thinking, “Look, my kid is constantly disrespectful. I have to stay on him if I want things to change. “So you correct and redirect every chance you get. Sometimes your child does manage to get it right, but the bad times far outweigh any progress. Kids are just like adults: constant correction breeds resentment. If you’re always calling your child on his poor choices, he might decide there’s just no way he can win. If you never acknowledge the times he actually manages to control his own behavior, he may just stop trying. It may seem counter-intuitive, but relentless attention to failure, with no acknowledgement of even small success, can increase your child’s disrespectful behavior.
- What to do instead: Kids respond well to praise. Not only does it feel good to be praised, it also gives your child important feedback: acknowledging good behavior reinforces those skills. If you notice your child doing something well, you might say: “When you went to your room instead of calling your sister names, that was really great. I know you’ve been working on controlling your temper when you’re annoyed. I appreciate it.”
4. And last, but not least: demand respect. “I am your parent and you have to respect me!” Does that sound familiar? A lot of parents on the 1-on-1 Coaching ask, “How can I get my child to respect me?” The truth is, many kids don’t automatically respect their parents. In fact, it’s pretty normal that your teen thinks they know far more than you; that’s one of the pitfalls of adolescence. Pretty much every teen thinks they’re smarter and more in tune than their parents. So here’s the thing: you can’t make someone respect you. Respect is a feeling, and you can’t legislate feeling. Trying to force your child to respect you just isn’t going to work. If you can’t demand their respect, how can you possibly stop them from acting so badly? The answer lies in addressing their behavior, rather than their feelings – even their feelings about you.
- What to do instead: You can’t demand respect, but you can require that your child acts respectfully, no matter how they feel about the situation. One great way to do this is to use one of James and Janet Lehman’s suggestions: when your child is behaving in a disrespectful way, you can tell them: “You don’t have to like the rule, but you do have to comply with it. Just because you’re irritated doesn’t mean you get to call me names.”Remember, stay focused on the behavior, and leave the feelings alone.
If you see yourself in any of these examples above, please don’t worry. Recognizing an ineffective way of dealing with disrespect is actually a great step. As you become more aware of the things that don’t work, you’ll be better able to take consistent, effective action to turn the situation around. It will take time and practice, but you can help your child learn to behave in more respectful ways.
*These tips apply to mild to moderate disrespect from your child. If the behavior you’re seeing is more extreme than that, please be sure to reach out for more support. Remember, as The Total Transformation Program teaches, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Too many parents have gone through the same challenges for you to feel alone. We’re always here to help.
Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former 1-on-1 Coaching Advisor, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.