Disrespectful Kids and Teens: 5 Rules to Help You Handle Their Behavior


A recent viral video of a group of pre-teen kids bullying and berating an elderly bus monitor showed us just how pervasive it is in society for children and teens to be rude and disrespectful to adults. Sadly, this kind of behavior from kids is everywhere, and it only seems to be getting worse.

Parenting is not a popularity contest. You need to be in control and you need to set some limits. Your child is not your partner or your peer.

Some of it can be chalked up to the fact that our culture—movies, music, internet sites and television—often glorifies disrespectful, crude or even cruel behavior. Kids are taught by pop culture to think it’s cool to talk back and put down parents and teachers.

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Added to this dynamic is the fact that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are generally less authoritarian and more submissive than prior generations were, and therefore much less likely to say no to their kids.

On top of this, stress levels are extremely high—in most households, both parents are working and might be worried about jobs, bills and other financial or personal strains. Many (if not most) parents are simply unable to devote the time and attention that it takes to sit down and thoroughly handle every situation that comes up with their kids.

When Did My Child Turn into a Pill?

Disrespectful behavior—cursing, yelling, arguing, ignoring you, refusing requests, name-calling—is a kind of wakeup call to parents. It’s telling you that you need to be in control of the situation more and set better limits. This is a process that happens over time. Once you change how you respond to your kid’s disrespectful behavior, it doesn’t mean that their behavior is going to change right away. It takes time and you will need to stick with it.

Before I tell you how to handle disrespectful behavior in your child, let’s talk a little about what’s going on with them.

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If your kid has suddenly started talking back, rolling her eyes and copping an attitude, as annoying and difficult as it is to deal with, disrespectful behavior is actually a normal part of adolescence. In fact, if it shows up all of a sudden, it probably is just adolescence—your child’s way of pushing away from you and “individuating”, or working at separating from you and becoming their own person. This is a painful thing to do—not that most adolescents would admit it!

The truth is, it’s difficult to push away from your parents and move toward adulthood. Sometimes it’s easier for kids just to be rude and disrespectful—but of course, that’s not acceptable behavior!

Disrespectful behavior often comes down to kids having poor problem-solving skills and a lack of knowledge about how to be more respectful as they pull away. Often when kids separate from you they do it all wrong before they learn how to do it right. Finding one’s self is a lifelong process, and your job as a parent is to teach your child how to behave appropriately and to be respectful toward others as they grow up.

If your child has been disrespectful most of their life and it’s not just something that came on primarily in adolescence, then it’s much harder to handle. A change needs to happen in how you manage their behavior, and change is always tough. Even if you haven’t been good at setting limits or teaching your child to be respectful along the way, understand that you can decide to parent differently at any point in your life.

When my son was in high school, he asked to go to a concert and we said “no” because, among other things, he and his friends were planning to drive out of state for it and sleep in his car afterward. Our son was rude and disrespectful as he walked away from us and yelled “I hate you!” before slamming his bedroom door. We took his car keys away because we didn’t want him to drive until we’d resolved the issue. We said, “When you’re calm, come downstairs and we’ll talk about it.” Later we sat down with him and explained that he didn’t have to like what we’d decided and that it was okay to be angry with us, but it was not okay to show that kind of behavior. This was a painful incident for all of us, but we made sure not to get pulled into a power struggle with him over it.

It’s inevitable that at times our kids are going to be angry at us, and that we’re going to set some limits that they don’t like. But that’s okay—that just means you’re doing your job as a parent. Here are 5 rules that will help you handle disrespect:

1. Don’t Take It Personally

I know this is a hard one, but try not to take what your child is saying or doing personally. This behavior really is all about them individuating, and not about you.

Instead of allowing yourself to feel hurt or angry (which is a surefire way to get pulled into a power struggle), be clear and direct with your child. If they’re being mildly sassy and starting to push some boundaries, you can say, “Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it,” and then turn around and walk away. Tell them the behavior is wrong and then disengage from them.

If your child’s behavior warrants a consequence, you can say, “It’s not okay to call me names or swear when I tell you can’t go to your friend’s house. I’m taking your cell phone for two hours. During that time, you need to show me you can behave respectfully to people in this house. If you swear or are rude again, the two hours will start over.”

Remember, it doesn’t matter if your child likes you right now. This is about doing the right thing, and asking yourself, “What do I want to teach my child?”

Parenting is not a popularity contest. You need to be in control and you need to set some limits. Your child is not your partner or your peer. Your role as parent is vital—you are in charge and your child is relying on you to lead the way.

2. Be Prepared

Know that some rude or disrespectful behavior is normal in adolescence, and be prepared for it. If it’s already happened once, you need to anticipate that it may happen again and then plan what you’re going to do about it. State your limits, then turn around and walk away. Remember, you don’t have to attend every fight—or power struggle—your child invites you to.

If your child has been extremely disrespectful because they really haven’t had limits around that behavior, this will take real work. Once you’ve set a limit and responded appropriately to the disrespect, again, do not get pulled into the power struggle. If you can do this once, it makes it easier to do it again. Just say to yourself, “As a parent I’m doing the right thing by setting these limits.”

Where should you draw the line with disrespectful behavior? I think every parent has a different line for their kids, and you’re going to know what that line is. Plan ahead and let your child know. You can say, “You swore at me the last time I said you couldn’t go to a concert. I don’t want you to do that again. If you do, there will be a consequence.” If there is an incident, be sure to talk with them once everybody cools down. Set limits when everyone is calm rather than in the heat of the moment.

3. Avoid Power Struggles at All Costs

Once you’re embroiled in a power struggle, you’ve lost. But what do you do when your kid is swearing in your face, calling you names, ignoring you or trying to boss you around? That’s where that internal dialogue is so important. Don’t take it personally.

Your job is to parent your child and teach him to behave differently. I think most of us have triggers when our kids are disrespectful and then we end up getting sucked into arguments with them. If your child has drawn you into a fight with disrespectful behavior in the past, be prepared that he will try to do it again. And then know what you’re going to do next time. Are you going to set a limit? Are you going to make your statement, give the expectations and not get caught up in your child’s words? Plan ahead. You might decide to give a consequence for the behavior and then have a follow-up discussion about what happened.

The goal is that you teach your child to behave differently. Let’s face it, there’s nothing worse than going through life treating people badly—it won’t help your child function in the real world if he’s allowed to be rude and disrespectful. Kids have to get the message.

4. Be Determined

If you want things to be different, you’ll have to make up your mind to do them differently and stick with it. It’s hard at first, but it’s really rewarding when things begin to change. James and I used to jokingly say that kids are like uncivilized little barbarians—it’s our job, as parents, to teach them a more respectful way to deal with problems. Decide today that you are going to start doing things differently.

5. Be a Teacher and Coach

It’s your job to teach your kids to behave more respectfully and manage frustration better. The three crucial roles for you to play as a parent are Teacher, Coach and Limit Setter. We teach them how to behave, we coach them (and encourage them) when they get it right, and we set limits when they get it wrong. These three roles are really the key to being an effective parent.

Remember, the goal is for kids to be able to function in the real world and go on to be responsible adults who can live on their own. We basically want all the things for our kids that our parents wanted for us: to be financially and emotionally able to function successfully on their own. It’s our job as parents to teach and guide our kids to become more functional. If they don’t learn how to be respectful to others growing up, it’s much harder to learn as an adult. Change is hard but it can happen at any time. When you want things to be different, you just have to do some work.


Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

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