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Disrespectful Kids: How to Get Your Child or Teen to Behave with Respect

By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

We all know that kids can act in many disrespectful and rude ways to parents: they can slam doors, roll their eyes, and tell you they hate you, to name a few. It’s natural to get very worried and frustrated and wonder if these types of behaviors constitute out-and-out abuse, or just “rudeness and mild disrespect.” How can a parent know when these rebellious and rude behaviors have crossed over a boundary and gone way too far?

“Let his problem of being rude be his problem, not yours. Don’t engage. Deal with your own problem of enforcing appropriate limits and sticking to what you believe is right, no matter how unhappy he might be.”

Related: Does your child behave disrespectfully toward you and others?

What Do You Consider to be “Disrespect”?

In the land of disrespect, people hurl insults at one another, put others down and hurt one another with intention. A good way to make the distinction between disrespect and general rudeness is to consider the intention behind it. Is your child simply expressing his unhappy feelings and his wish to have more freedom, perhaps? Does he express his frustrations with rude behaviors like slamming his door, stomping his feet, abruptly walking away from you while talking, having baby tantrums or rolling his eyes? These need to be understood for what they are – an expression of his frustration, rather than an intentional act of disrespect and defiance with the desire to hurt you. Stick with the issue and don’t get sidetracked about how he is delivering his upset. If the issue is about his chores, for example, stay with that – don’t let him deflect you with his rudeness. Let his problem of being rude be his problem, not yours. Don’t engage. Deal with your own problem of enforcing appropriate limits and sticking to what you believe is right, no matter how unhappy he might be.

Let’s say that you’ve told your 13-year-old he can’t use his cell phone at night, but you catch him texting when he’s supposed to be sleeping. Would you consider this disrespectful behavior toward you? Would you react to it and punish him for his disrespect? Or would you consider this instead his clumsy attempt to exert control over his life and make his own rules? Would you punish him because you think he’s being disrespectful toward you? Would that change if he called you a bad name and threw something at you while you were taking his phone away and doling out consequences? And would his reaction be considered crossing over the boundary into the land of disrespect? The answer to the last question is “yes.”

Related: How to stay calm and parent effectively, even when your child pushes your buttons.

Here’s a typical struggle between parent and child that you might relate to: you expect to be listened to and have your child comply with your rules while he lives under your roof. That’s reasonable. Meanwhile, your child developmentally seeks his own autonomy and strives to be more self-directed and to think more independently as he grows up, and does not want limits imposed on him. That’s reasonable. No one is wrong in what they are seeking here.

The problem is that kids often don’t know how to find more appropriate ways to express their desire for independence, accept limitations and learn to comply when necessary. On the other hand, parents may not recognize that their child’s rudeness is often driven by the push for more independence, and is not always meant as a threat to their authority. The child’s intentions really have nothing to do with disrespect. The child, of course, needs to learn how to listen to his parents while finding appropriate ways to seek autonomy and self-direction while the parents need to be careful not to label the child’s behavior “disrespectful to their authority” and take the rebellion personally.

The Bottom Line: 6 Ways to Deal with Disrespectful Behavior

The bottom line is that when a child breaks a rule, the parent should hold the child accountable. That’s appropriate and helpful. But when the parent misunderstands and believes the child is being disrespectful toward him by not obeying his rules, he is heading down the wrong path–and all-out battles can result. These battles are often fought using mean words, and at times even get physical. That’s because when actions feel personal between a parent and child, emotions get heated and highly charged. Make no mistake, reactivity will be high. And if there was disrespect before, there will really be disrespect now!

Here are six ways to handle disrespect in your home, and turn the dynamic around in your home:

1. Don’t treat this as a personal attack–even though it can feel that way. To help your child be respectful, understand that their rude behavior might be an expression of their frustration about their lack of independence, not an attack against your authority. In fact, it’s because you have that authority that they’re acting out! Don’t take it personally; just hold them accountable for any rude behavior. It also might be a good idea to consider whether you’re giving them enough reasonable independence. Is it time to allow your child to make more of his own choices and face the consequences, whether good or bad?

2.  Take a self-inventory. To help your child be respectful, always take a self-inventory and see how you might inadvertently be contributing to the disrespect. What’s been your part in this negative dynamic? Observe how you are managing your relationship with your child and consider if his negative behavior might be an expression of his reaction to that management. In other words, are you over- or under-functioning for your child, taking things too personally, and being too reactive? Are you tangled in a power struggle that you need to step out of?

Another type of parent/child struggle that breeds disrespect is when parents don’t expect enough of their kids, and therefore, don’t hold them accountable for much of anything. The child grows up believing she’s not expected to follow the rules or listen to her parents while living under their roof. Parents in this situation might even say they do expect those things, but their behavior tells a different story. If you find ways to let your child off the hook over and over again by excusing, justifying, rationalizing and minimizing her poor behaviors, you aren’t expecting enough of her. A child given this message has independence, but doesn’t have boundaries or guidance. The end result is that she’s left feeling anxious and out of control. She will often act with disrespect because, for one, she can; two, she doesn’t respect her parents’ spinelessness; and three, she hasn’t learned to take responsibility for her own behavior. When a parent tends to “give in,” “give too much,” “give up,” or “flip out” with his child rather than take a clear stand, he is planting the seeds for more and more disrespect.

3. Expect Respect. To help your child be respectful, EXPECT him to comply with your rules and listen to you. Of course, you also need to be flexible, not rigid or dogmatic, and listen to him and get his input–but the bottom line is that you will expect him to listen and follow the rules that you have set forth.

A parent can demand respect, but the behavior that results probably won’t be authentic.  Authentic respect comes from a parent behaving in ways that invite respect.

Related: How to expect respect and stop power struggles in your family.

4. Behave the way you want your child to behave. To help your child be respectful you must live by your own principle of acting respectfully to your child NO MATTER how he is behaving.  Act respectfully while holding him accountable – these actions aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s difficult to continue to act respectfully toward your child even when he is hurling insults at you, but it’s so important to be a good role model. Act with integrity without letting your child off the hook.

5. Choose your battles. In order to help your child be respectful, don’t make big issues of all the rude ways that he might express his frustrations. Again, don’t take these expressions personally. In other words, don’t give legs to (and make a moral issue out of) those rude child behaviors like stomping, eye-rolling, getting the last word, saying things aren’t fair, slamming doors, walking away and other behaviors that are simply your child’s way of expressing his frustrations. Kids are entitled to feel what they feel – that’s about them, not about you. Be careful not to take their feelings, their separate opinions or disagreements to heart, or believe your child is deliberately  disrespecting your authority when they express those feelings. There will be a place and time for you to help them learn more effective ways to express their frustrations.

But do take seriously deliberately hurtful behavior that is directed toward you or another – that’s not mild rebellion, it is outright disrespect. Hold your child accountable to better behaviors. Don’t engage by reacting, but do decide what you will and won’t do in response to disrespectful behavior. Perhaps you won’t be willing to do that extra favor for your son because you don’t feel goodwill toward him when he treats you so unkindly. Or perhaps you will step away from a conversation with him when you are treated with disrespect, and continue only when he gains some self-control and stops calling you names or being condescending to you.

Again, if the behaviors cross the line into disrespect, make sure you do not allow yourself to be treated poorly. Decide how you will manage yourself in the future when being treated like this by your child. His disrespectful behavior is his problem to work out; your problem is what you will and won’t put up with.

Related: Has your child’s behavior crossed the line into outright disrespect and defiance?

6. Ask yourself, “Who owns this problem?” When it comes to your kids being mildly rude toward you, ask yourself each time it happens, “Who owns the problem of disrespect?” For example, if your daughter stomps off and mutters under her breath after you tell her she can’t go to the party, don’t let her rudeness belong to you. Don’t engage in it. Her rudeness is her problem. Your problem is deciding if she can or can’t go to the party and enforcing whatever you thoughtfully and non-reactively decided. Her next problem is to figure out better ways to communicate her upset. She can have a tantrum even if she is 3 or 18–that’s her business. You don’t have to give in to it, withdraw from it, or flip out about it. You have your own problems to figure out; that’s your business. Also remember that stomping off and muttering (even though it’s annoying) might be showing a lot of self-control on her part – she could have screamed at you or been physical if she hadn’t walked away muttering. The more you are able to act on behalf of yourself instead of in reaction to her, the more she will be able to see you separately from herself.

Know Where You End and Your Child Begins

It’s difficult to respect another person for who they are if you can’t see who they are. Often with our kids and those we love, our anxiety gets us so emotionally tangled with them that we don’t know where we end and they begin. Work toward managing yourself instead of managing them and their emotions, and you will be better able to “see” and appreciate one another. This will help to breed respect between yourself and your child — and in all your relationships.

If you need help navigating the challenging obstacles that come up as you raise your kids, remember that our 1-on-1 Coaches are here for you. They’ve helped thousands of families just like yours come up with sensible, effective solutions to tough parenting problems, and they can help you.

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About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

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