Disrespectful Child Behavior?
Don't Take It Personally

by Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor
Disrespectful Child Behavior? Don't Take It Personally

If you’ve heard yourself saying things like, “What’s the matter with you? Why are doing this to me?” or “You’re making me crazy,” you’re probably taking your child’s behavior personally. And when you fall into that trap, you begin to assume the worst of your child. In other words, you start to believe he has malicious intentions when he disobeys you, even when he doesn’t.

I think it’s important to stress that everyone personalizes things from time to time, and we all do it for different reasons. Who hasn’t gotten mad at another driver after being cut off in traffic? At certain times, any parent can overreact and take things too personally. And frankly, if your kid is standing there calling you names, it would be hard for anyone not to take that personally.

"A more effective way to deal with the situation is to focus on your child's behavior, not his—or your—feelings."

But James Lehman cautions the following: “Personalizing inappropriate behavior often leads to fighting with your children, with nothing to be gained. Remember, we want to avoid power struggles and fights whenever we can.” So let’s say your child is staying out late and has missed curfew, and you’re taking this behavior as a sign of disrespect, because your child is not obeying you. Your feeling might be “You’re disrespecting me because you’re breaking this rule.” But the truth is that your child probably broke that rule because he wanted to stay out with his friends. A more effective way to deal with this situation is to focus on his behavior, not his—or your—feelings.

Related: Good behavior is a skill any child can learn.

Many parents say “I don’t think my child cares about my feelings at all.” And you may be right—teens have not yet developed a mature sense of empathy, so appealing to it often won’t work. To expect your child to understand and care about your feelings when he disobeys you is also a sign that you’re over–personalizing his behavior.

Some parents adopt a very strict, rigid parenting style while some choose a really permissive one. Neither of these parenting roles is effective. Look at it this way: if you're too rigid, your child won’t be allowed to be in charge of making his own decisions. How will he know how to make the right choices when no one is there to tell him what to do? And if you are too permissive, your child will have few limits set on him to show him the right way to behave. When this happens, you’ll see your child steadily gain more control in the household until he's in charge. When still other parents take things very personally, they overreact by saying abusive things, giving severe punishments or even physically hurting their children. These parents may become frightened by their reactions and pull out of disciplining altogether—leaving this job to their spouse or no one at all.  Being out of control scares them so much that it often results in their having minimal interaction with their children. 

What to Do When Your Child Pushes Your Buttons

If your child pushes your buttons, yells or calls you names, it’s hard not to personalize. What should you do or say? Here are some real techniques that I’ve given callers on the Parental Support Line.

Breathe: If you have been personalizing your child’s behavior and you want to make some changes, the absolute best thing to do first is breathe deeply several times. Focusing on your breath can distract you from your emotions. It also lets you pause for 10 seconds so you’ll make a more appropriate remark. That small action is going to let some of the anger subside and might allow you to respond rather than react.

Tell your child you don’t like it: James Lehman recommends that you say, “It’s not okay to speak to me that way; I don’t like it,” and then leave the room. Be sure to speak in as calm and even a tone as you can, and be serious when you say it.

Related: How to disconnect from your child’s anger

Remember that you are the mature one: Remember that you’re dealing with somebody who is less mature and less capable than you are. Your children are going to make mistakes, they are going to be impulsive and say things they shouldn’t say—they’re kids. Just remember that you’re the mature one.

It really isn’t about you: The other thing to remind yourself is that it isn’t always about you—even if they are screaming “I hate you!” The behavior that pushes your buttons might be something your child is struggling with or needs some limits set on. So even if the inappropriate behavior is directed at you, it’s not really about you. It’s about them.

Ask yourself what behavior you want to change: James Lehman says, “Don’t focus on the emotions, focus on the behavior.” So instead of asking yourself why your child won’t do what you want them to do, ask “What behavior would I like to see changed?” I am a mother myself, and I understand that sometimes kids do push your buttons on purpose to try to get to you. But rather than reacting to their attempts to derail you, focus on the behavior at hand and give consequences for it. This allows you to start working toward real change.

By the way, there’s a misconception that if a consequence isn’t given immediately after your child misbehaves, the teaching moment has been lost. But that’s not really true. You can go back and talk to your child later—and sometimes, it’s better to do that when everyone is calm.

What do you want your child to learn? The problem–solving piece in all of this is the question “What do I want my child to learn?” This is often a better question than “What do I want my child to do?”—especially when you feel the tension building. Just step back and ask “What do I want my kid to learn?” I know that it’s not always easy to do this, but it’s like anything else—the more you practice the easier it gets.

Find out what your triggers are: I also recommend that you learn what’s definitely going to trigger you. Is it when your child swears, slams the door, or curses at you? Try to get an idea of what your hot buttons are. Awareness is half of the battle—and the other half is having a plan of what you’ll do when your buttons are pushed.

Name–calling and Cursing

I think that it’s normal to be offended and have a huge emotional response when your child calls you names or swears at you. And when you’re triggered, you need those techniques of taking a breath, telling your child you don’t like what they’re saying and leaving the room. Above all, you don’t want to respond in kind. (Click here to read James Lehman’s article on how to handle swearing.) Again it’s focusing on the behavior and not on the emotions of the moment.

I always tell parents not to feel like they have failed if they lose it and get angry—because sometimes you will get angry. There is no such thing as a perfect parent—and you don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent.

Related: Does your child yell, call you names or swear at you?

When you personalize and react to what your child is saying, it’s easy to get into a tug–of–war with them. So again, try asking yourself “What lesson does my child need to learn?” What should I teach him here?” Your answer can’t be “My child needs to do what I say when I say it.” Rather, the lesson should be related to the kind of person you want your child to grow into. In other words, if your answer is wrapped around your child doing something for you as a person—if it’s “He needs to obey me at all times,” then you need to rework that until it sounds more like, “He needs to be responsible when it comes to doing his chores on time.” And “I want him to learn to say ‘no’ when his friends try to convince him to stay out after curfew.”

Think about the skills you want your child to have as he matures. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to be responsible and to be accountable for their actions. You also want them to learn how to think for themselves and make good choices. In the end, we want our kids to be independent thinkers who are able to function as healthy adults in society.

“I’m worried that my child doesn’t love me.”

I think it’s important to understand that kids are in their own world. They’re out there learning, doing, hanging out with friends, being propelled forward into the future. Your child loves you, but you’re not everything. And the older your child gets, the less he needs you. As parents, we know that it’s not the same for us. Our love for our children is often huge and all–encompassing. As hard as it is, I think you have to be whole in yourself and have a strong enough ego to let your child do things on his own and leave you eventually.

Parenting has always been a balance between thinking and feeling, and both are very important. When you’re over–personalizing, you’re letting your feelings drive your actions. Some parents get upset because their kids don’t “feel like” doing their homework, for example, but that may never happen. Rather, you want them to learn to do what they need to do, even if they don’t feel like it.

Many parents worry that their kids don’t love them. The truth is, if your child yells at you, calls you names and says, “I hate you,” in that moment he probably really is angry and maybe he doesn’t like you very much—but that doesn’t mean that’s the way he feels about you all the time. When people are mad at each other, I think it’s normal not to like each other in that moment. When you’re mad at your spouse, you might say something hurtful and regret it later. It’s not always the best response, yet most of us do it sometimes. But it doesn’t mean that when that argument has passed, you don’t have good feelings toward each other any longer.

It’s the same for kids and parents. When you set boundaries on your child, he won’t always like it. But if you avoid setting limits and try instead to be your child’s friend, you won’t be an effective parent because you won’t be able to teach him what he needs to learn as he grows up.


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Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.

READER'S COMMENTS

This was a great article and helped me to see things from a different perspective. Thanks.

Comment By : Nbennett

Many adults are still children, that's why I love your articles, it's for everyone. Thank-You sincerely and please keep-up the good work! MHouser

Comment By : mhouser

Good article. I would like to know though, as a high school teacher is there a way I can apply this? Many times I have students who are disrespectful and swear at me. I do take the breath, but I am in a situation where I can't really leave. I will send the student out and talk to him or her after I calm a bit. Is there a better way to deal with the disrespectful student?

Comment By : bperry0101

Thank you Empowering Parents! I can be a good example to my teens and earn their respect by dealing with the issue at hand calmly and not just acting on emotions.

Comment By : CJ

I apologize if I cannot agree totally on the concept of not taking it personally. A family is not a business relationship that you cannot take things personally. We are sincere parents that want the best for our children and that takes dedication and goes with it our emotions. For me disrespect is the start of all the problems in our society that if not suppressed will give us more problems in the future. We parents should be firm that disrespect should not be tolerated at all. Perhaps we are becoming so lenient on disrespect of children now because going back to our childhood, we also disrespected our parents and they did allow us to do it to them. We have a house rule - disrespect is not acceptable. Thank you for sharing. A wrongdoing is a wrongdoing and cannot be justified.

Comment By : Godblessthekids

I thoroughly agree with this article. Children need to learn first at home to respect their parents and subsequently they will be better students at school or people in the community. If I may comment on another post....I think that maybe Godblessthechildren may have misunderstood what was meant by "not take it personally" If I may add my two cents....I think what she was trying to say was to gain control of the situation and ultimately fix the problem at hand the parent or adult should not take the name calling or situation itself personally for risk of losing control and the ultimate power of the lesson at hand. After my 12 year old yells "I hate you" yes my feelings are hurt but I will not get personal with her and communicate on the same level as I would with my husband or another adult. I would simply say "I realize you are not happy but these are the rules and we must follow them, remember I love you. I feel there would be to many grudges out there if people took things personal from young people.

Comment By : MomNurse

it is our role as prents to instill displine and good behaviors to our children.this need to start right away from early childhood.we need to think about the african saying that "a tree can be bent when it istill young".similarly parents can shape the behaviors of their children by acting as role models,having discussion,spending quality time .with them

Comment By : MWINISKY DE MUKS

This is an excellent article! It helped me to see my son's behavior and not to personalize his behavior.

Comment By : Stephanie

* Dear ‘bperry0101’: Although the Total Transformation Program was designed to be used by parents, we have heard from a few teachers that have applied the techniques in their classrooms. Read: School of Hard Knocks: Getting Behavioral Help for Teachers in the Classroom

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

This is a very good article but Im dealing with a 29 yr. old son who has completely forgotten who he's talking too. He has burned his bridges with everyone who has helped him and it makes no sense. I wilol not tolerate less long put up with it any longer. I have put up with all of the stuff hes doing and has done the disrespect has gone to far and no one but him has put himself in the situations hes in. He quit his job he has deserted his family and is on drugs and just lays up on family and dont try to help with anything . Espically at my place . You dont just help yourself with what you want in your parents home and turn around and curse that parent out . I am donr with ratinalizing with a grown man that acts like a spoiled kid. It makes no sense. Then blames you (the parent) for what he's going through. Its not my fault I taugh him better but this has been going on for years and somewhere down the line either he gone wind up dead or back in prison. I cant help him no more. I have walked away and told him I didnt appreciate it and it starts all over again . He wont go to the doctor and he not trying to help himself becausre he drinks and does drugs. I am so afraid for him but Im ill myself and I dont know nothing else to do but pray . Im done OI cant take it no more!

Comment By : Ms. Brown

This reply goes to Ms. Brown. Ms. Brown please do not feel guilty for removing your son from your life. You and your family members have enabled him all these years and that is why he continues to take and is unappreciative of all you have done for him. He is a drug addict and that is their normal behavior. I should know. My brother was addicted to drugs for many years and he too burned many bridges. It wasn't until we stopped enabling him that he realized there were 2 choices: clean up or die. He now has been clean for 6 years, has a full time job where he just got promoted. He too had a criminal record so he was not able to be hired full time with benefits until he had his record expunged. We prayed a lot, maintained hope and never again gave into his demands. I wish the best for you and your son. I pray he will understand how his life style is effecting you. God bless you.

Comment By : GracieLuv

I have two daughters 9 and 10 and a son 6. I have a good husband and strong marriage. It is the first marriage for both of us (eleven years) and they are all both our biological children. My older daughter is very hostile. She is very popular in school and reasonably well behaved but contemptious at home (especially of me). She reminds me of my ninty seven year old grandmother who nearly drove my mother insane with her constant criticism and advice. She frequently targets my younger daughter who is no shrinking violet herself. These are some of her criticisms of her sister: -you dress like a boy -your weird -you have a psychiatrist -you have an IEP (individual education plan) at school (so does the older girl) -everyone knows you have problems -you stink .. take a shower If I gently mention to my nine year old that I will put a shower on for her and everything is set up and my nine year old seems fine with it, my ten year old will immediately start in "Yes, you stink! please take a shower.. do us a favor." this goes on endlessly and automatically brings out the worst in the nine year old. This morning my ten year old came downstairs with the nine year old's backpack and said "Oh look, you got a 30% on this test!" My younger daughter was enraged and belted her in the stomach. The older girl starts screaming and threw her sisters papers all over the staircase. Sometimes I just want to take my son and go somewhere. My younger daughter needs patience. She never hits anybody but the ten year old and then never but when she starts in on her. I don't even feel sorry for my ten year old when this happens. There was no violence in my childhood. There is no violence in my marriage. I don't know where this comes from. My nine year old says "I'm not good at anything.. I hate school. I don't have any friends" (she has some... not a lot). Her sister knows just how to press her buttons and she gets so angry and hits her. I am trying to get my younger daughter into a good private school (and trying to get my public school to pay for it.) For years I dread when my husband has to travel for work. My older daughter (and younger one to a lesser extent) get so hostile and just will not listen to me. Lately he hasn't had to travel too much and I don't know what I'm going to do when he has to again. They are both strong and will not hesitate to strike at me when I get in between them. I feel like a baby calling my husband to come and deal with them (during his lunch) but I feel like I have no alternative. Neither of the girls have any abuse or neglect in the past. Neither of them ever even had to go to daycare. I worked nights and weekends for years so one of us was always home with them. I just long for the day when my older girl is old enough to go away to school. The younger one has some tendency towards depression but her sister makes it so much worse and she will not shut her mouth for anything. I don't say this out loud but I really don't blame my younger daughter when she hits the older one because I know she is at the end of her rope and I can sympathize. I tell the older one to behave and she says "make me". I take priviliges away and she still shoots her mouth off. Its not good for my son, Its not good for my marriage and its killing me. At times I wished I were ill just to be in hospital for a few days and away from the screaming. My parents and in laws agree that the older girl is "strong willed" but she doesn't strike anyone but me. She hits me when I try to get in between the two girls and after the nine year old has hit her. It is a vicious cycle. It was easier to go to work but I know right now I am needed at home. I am so tired and don't know where to begin but writing about it has helped. thank you

Comment By : Claire

* Dear Claire: Conflicts between siblings can be so frustrating and exhausting! James Lehman felt that siblings argue and bully each other due to a lack of effective problem solving skills. I think you will find these two articles extremely helpful and full of ideas you can use with your children: Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now), Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What do you do when your spouse who was away (military) for many years all of a sudden is home and my daughter who is now 18 for the past 4 yrears (since he retired) has come between us and knows she can. He allows it, I think it's out of guilt, but I am the one who has been hurt physically and mentally. I will ask the simplest things of her while she is home from college and I am called the filthiest names. She knows its a button with me. I'm so disgusted in her behavior now, I'm beyond hurt by my husband making excuses for her behavior.The saying that her behavior or what she has said is unacceptable ande walking away doesn't help. I've gone to my room and she will follow me and not leave me alone. When she doesn't get a response, she will break something of mine and even the door to my room where I am trying to breathe!! There is no remorse, she doesn't know how to say sorry and she will try the next day to be all cuddly with me like nothing happened and my husband thinks it's ok, that's how she says she's sorry! NO IT'S NOT!!then the vicious cycle happens again when things don't go her way. I get the blunt end of it.I am so very, very tired and can't take this abuse anymore. I've even changed my will taht my money that she might normally inherit, will go to a parent abuse organization.

Comment By : Sara\'s mom

* To “Sara's mom”: Thank you for sharing your story with Empowering Parents. I can hear you have been dealing with some challenging behaviors for a while now. I am sorry this is happening. No one deserves to be treated this way. Feeling like you aren’t getting any support from your husband must make the situation even more upsetting. You might find it helpful to focus on what you can control, namely, how you respond to your daughter when she acts out this way. It seems you have been setting the limit and then walking away. That is a great way to handle the situation in the moment. By disengaging from the power struggle, you are making a choice and not accepting the invitation to that argument. Even if it may not feel like it’s doing anything, it is allowing you to focus on what you can control, namely how you respond to her. You mention in your comment that you have been hurt physically by your daughter. You might consider calling the police if your daughter becomes physically assaultive towards you again. Though this may not be something you have considered in the past, it does send a clear message that her behavior will not be tolerated. Perhaps you could call the business or non-emergency number of your local police department and ask them how they may be able to help you in this situation. Here is an article by Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner that discusses how to talk with the police when your child is being physically abusive: How to Talk to Police When Your Child is Physically Abusive. Another thing that may be helpful for you is speaking with a marriage or family counselor. From what you have written it sounds like you and your husband aren’t on the same page as far as what is and isn’t OK from your daughter. A marriage or family counselor may be able to help you with this. Even if your husband doesn’t want to go, you may find it helpful when you’re not sure how to address these differences with your husband. The 211 National Helpline can put you into contact with local counselors and other services and supports. You can reach this valuable resource by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto 211.org. We wish you and your family the best as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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