I believe the distinction between mild rebelliousness and disrespect has to be drawn very clearly. But, as a parent, how do you know for sure if your child’s behavior has crossed the line and become truly disrespectful? And what should you do when they cross the line?

When a child is being rude or complaining that something isn’t fair, ask yourself: “Is my child expressing general frustration about the injustices or challenges of life, or is he being deliberately hurtful, condescending or abusive?”

I look at it this way: when your child rolls his eyes and stomps up the stairs, it’s fairly harmless. It’s very different from him saying, “You’re a jerk. You can’t make me. I don’t care what the rules are, I’m not doing it!”

I believe that when kids engage in mildly rebellious expressions of frustration, it’s a sign that you indeed have the authority.

But make no mistake, there is a distinction between eye-rolling and your child shouting, “You’re stupid” or something even worse. I think parents need to understand this difference at a core level.

Many parents don’t know where to draw the line when it comes to their child’s disrespectful behavior. When their teen or pre-teen is mildly rebellious, it frightens them. Parents would say to me, “If I don’t stop my teen’s eye-rolling, next she’ll be telling me to f-off.”

I’d usually reply, “Well, the question is, did she ever tell you to f-off in the past? If she didn’t, don’t worry about it. And if she does in the future, hold her accountable.” It’s as simple as that.

Parenting Adolescents is a Delicate Balance

By the way, I understand that parents are often afraid that things are going to get more difficult with their adolescents. If you’re parenting a teen or pre-teen, you probably fear that things will get worse. As we all know, kids in that age group can be very moody and stubborn. Parenting during adolescence is a delicate balance.

So, it’s important to allow for the natural “breaking away” process that comes during the teen years. But it’s also important to identify and challenge any truly disrespectful child behavior that is hurtful, rude, or demeaning to others.

Related content: Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer Pressure

Compliance Versus Independence

Respect, disrespect, and compliance are often issues that become entangled between parents and kids. Here’s how I see it. Parents have a right to expect compliance from all the children who are living in their house—even if that child is 22 years old.

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Often, friction is caused by an adolescent’s legitimate need to become more independent as he develops. This is precisely where parents and teens come into conflict: the parent wants compliance and the adolescent wants independence.

Don’t Take it Personally

Now let’s take it one step further. When the adolescent doesn’t comply, the parent feels disrespected. And then parents make the mistake of personalizing that feeling.

I think that teens have to learn to solve the problem of compliance in healthy ways. But parents also need to understand that many times, their child’s small acts of rebelliousness come from the fact that they want to be independent. In other words, their rebellion has nothing to do with disrespect.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a teenager is late for curfew. The parent says, “Why are you late?” and the kid gives them some excuse. Then the parent asks, “Well, why didn’t you call?” The adolescent replies, “Well, I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of my friends.”

Understandably, the parent may then say, “Well, you’re not going out Friday night as a result; you have to take more responsibility to be on time and to call if you’re going to be late.”

This consequence is fair and the response is fair. But, if the parent then says, “You have no right to disrespect me that way,” the parent is on the wrong track because they have personalized the situation.

One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to take their child’s behavior personally. The truth is, the teenager next door is doing the same thing to his parents, and your cousin’s daughter is doing the same thing to her parents. It’s just what teenagers do. Your role is to just deal with your child’s behavior as objectively as possible.

When parents don’t have effective ways to deal with these kinds of things, they may feel out of control and get scared. They often overreact or underreact to the situation.

When they overreact, they become too rigid. And when they underreact, they ignore the behavior or tell themselves it’s “just a phase.” Either way, it doesn’t help your child learn to manage his thoughts or emotions more effectively and it doesn’t help your child to be more respectful.

Behaviors That Parents Can—and Should—Ignore

Generally, I recommend that parents ignore the mildly disrespectful things that their kids do. We’ve talked about eye-rolling and stomping up the stairs. But I would also include things like muttering about how life isn’t fair, sighing dramatically, or even slamming their bedroom door on occasion.

When my son was a teenager, there were times when we’d tell him to do something and he’d walk up the stairs to his room mumbling, “Man, I hate this garbage.” We allowed that display of emotion because we weren’t threatened by it. After he left the room, my wife and I would simply look at each other, chuckle, and say, “Yeah, yeah, whatever—just go do your homework.”

It’s OK for Your Child to Express Frustration

Kids need to be able to express their frustration about living within a family and following its rules. So I advise parents to tolerate that type of behavior. After all, your adolescent needs to learn how to have feelings and opinions of his own, and he has to have a safe place in which he can express his frustration. And sometimes you’ll see him do this in very immature ways.

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By the way, there were parents with whom I’ve worked who didn’t have the tolerance to allow that kind of behavior. They felt that it was a threat to their authority, and they ended up challenging it at every turn. But I believe that if your teenager is otherwise managing his life—getting good enough grades, being a good enough kid, not doing criminal or anti-social things, not doing high-risk things—that type of behavior isn’t a threat to the parents’ authority at all.

Rather, I believe that when kids engage in mildly rebellious expressions of frustration, it’s a sign that you clearly have the authority. Think of it this way: it’s not a challenge to your authority, it’s an expression of frustration about your authority. That means the ball is in your court. There’s no reason to throw it to your child and give power to their annoying—but harmless—behavior.

Disrespectful Child Behavior Parents Should NOT Ignore

Make no mistake, when true disrespect is directed toward a specific parent or sibling and it’s demeaning and rude, it has to be dealt with immediately. If your child doesn’t see the line between disrespect and mild rebelliousness, you need to talk with him. Sit down with him when things are going well and say:

“Listen, if you want to stomp up the stairs because you’re frustrated and you think things aren’t fair, that’s okay with me. But if you start calling people names and being rude to family members, you’re going to be held accountable for that behavior. So, don’t go too far.”

If you’ve noticed that your child has already crossed the line and is behaving in an increasingly disrespectful manner, you can say:

“Look, there’s a line that I think you’re crossing when you talk to us. If you want to roll your eyes and say ‘Whatever,’ that’s fine with me. I don’t want to fight with you about that. But name-calling, blaming, and yelling are not acceptable. You are responsible not to do those things.”

Responsibility, Accountability, and Consequences

Always put these ideas together for your kids: responsibility, accountability, and consequences. Tell your child:

“You’re responsible to behave a certain way. I’m going to hold you accountable for your behavior. And there will be consequences if you don’t take responsibility for it.”

Ensure that your child understands the relationship between these three important ideas.

Responsibility, Accountability, and Consequences in Action

Let’s say your teenage son has called his sister a rude or hurtful name, and you’ve sent him to his room. When things have calmed down, sit down with him and say:

“You know, I’ve been hearing you say disrespectful things to your sister. I just want to remind you that if you’re rude to her, it’s as bad as being rude to me. And the consequence for that kind of behavior is…”

And let him know what is going to happen:

You: “You know the consequences for disrespectful behavior in this house. I’m taking your phone away until you’re not disrespectful for four hours. You’ve got a chance to get it back a half-hour before bedtime, so don’t blow it.”

Your child: “Whatever. I’m going to bed anyway.”

You: “OK, that’s fine with me. We can start the clock when you wake up.”

Your child: “That’s not fair! I need my phone tomorrow.”

You: “That’s not my problem. My problem is, how do I get you to stop talking to your sister that way? And your problem is, why are you using disrespect as a way to deal with your negative feelings? And believe me, calling your sister names doesn’t solve that problem. That’s not acceptable in this home.”

Note that the parent here took her son’s phone away for a relatively short time—four hours. I believe that’s better than taking it for a day or two because now the parent has the child working to get it back. The teen has to focus on the new behavior of being respectful, or at least not being rude and disrespectful so that he earns his phone back.

In doing this, you’re creating a pathway for better behavior, and you’re working toward a culture of accountability and respect in your home.

Related content: How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home

A Final Word: Respect Begins at Home

Respect begins at home. If you want your children to be respectful, you have to be respectful, too. If you call your kids names, if you yell at others, if you make derogatory remarks to your spouse, don’t be surprised if your child behaves the same way.

You’re modeling that behavior for him. Parents who tell their children, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say,” are just creating the kind of double standard that breeds negativity and resentment.

Let’s face it, if you’re doing something yourself, it gets very complicated when you ask your child to stop. Believe me, kids know hypocrisy when they see it.

An ineffective parent is a person who expects their kids to do things that they’re not willing to do themselves. You have to live your values. If you value respect, then you’ve got to behave respectfully.

Related content:
Disrespectful Child or Teen? 5 Things Not to Do as a Parent

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James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (7)
  • Just Me
    I am REALLY struggling and this is helping me to understand what I am doing WRONG , and what I need to be doing. Thank you for this.
  • Ms Dee
    Thank you for this wonderful platform to share and receive much needed advice and assistance. My daughter's behaviour has become worse as the high school years progress. She is now in Grade 10 and started bunking class. The latest is that she and he school mate walked out of theMore Math's teacher's class as she told them to sit on the floor as that is the consequence for coming late for class. The boy decided that that was uncool and turned around and walked out and told my daughter to do the same. While I understand that peer pressure has a lot to do with it as she went from a compliant child to a bit of a rebellious teen. She will be sixteen later this year. Please advise how to deal with this latest act of defiance. Your help is much appreciated. Thank you.
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      We hear from many parents who are struggling with their teen's behavior in school. Generally, it's best to let school deal with behavior that happens in school while you focus on the behavior that happens at home. We have several articles on school related issues you may find helpful: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/child-behavior-problems/school-homework/

      We appreciate you reaching out. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.

  • Jasmine
    My problem is my 15 year old son. He smokes weed drinks stays out all weekend ignoring my calls. He's extremely disrespectful breaks and slams things. I am a single mom and at my wits end. I have other kids who don't act this way and they are teens asMore well. He ignores my punishments. I was in a bad abusive relationship with his father years ago and I can't say I don't get a bit scared when he acts this way. I don't want to be scared of my own child and I don't want to walk on eggshells in my own house because of a 15 year old. I need help and I have no one to turn to.
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Hi, Jocelyn. It sounds like you're feeling more than a bit overwhelmed with all of your son's acting out behaviors. We find that picking one behavior or area of concern to focus on helps to make the steps forward more manageable. We have a great article that offers tips for how to start moving forward. You can find it here: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-childs-behavior-is-so-bad-where-do-i-begin-how-to-coach-your-child-forward/.

      Thank you for reaching out an sharing your story. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.

  • Tom
    My issue is that my teen girl is out of control. She's 17 and thinks she doesn't have to listen or get permission. She has been gone four days now because I told her she couldn't see her boyfriend that night because she lied to me and was high &More drunk when I picked her up from her friends. I think it was a fair punishment. But as soon as I go to the store she just takes off and she's been doing it this last year. I used to call the police but they don't do anything they don't even look for her. Can't afford to send her to rehab and she wouldn't go anyway. My wife says oh well she only has three months until she's 18 and then she's out. and that teenagers are rebellious and they lie and if we try to punish anyway she just going to run again. I think that's complete BS and I'm really upset with my wife or taking the stance. my thought is so she can just do whatever she wants and if we have any objections you just going to take off? I just can't accept that. Is my wife right or am I on the right track to demand her to be held responsible and accountable for her out of control behavior. Thanks!
    • fishboy316
      Wow Tom. I am 63 and have raised a 17 yo Granddaughter who is doing the same thing. I am trying to learn how to keep my temper but she knows how to push the buttons. She left for 2 weeks at a time before. We have tried a tonMore of things to no avail. She loves to party and carry on. My wife is of the same mind as yours and it bothers me also. Feels like giving up on the girl. Not sure what to do with it either. I will say that at times it feels like letting life take a big bite out of her hind end seems like the only thing to do. I have a real hard time taking an f...you from a kid I didn't have to raise but did out of love of family and a love for her. Let us know if you come up with a great strategy. I will do the same.
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