Disrespectful Child or Teen? 5 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!

Related: Dealing with daily disrespect?

“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.

Related: How to give your child consequences that  work.

    1. 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.

Related: Doing too much for your child? How to  stop.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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 Parental Support Line  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.

Related: How to give fail-proof consequences to your ODD  child.

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.


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