Are you dealing with a disrespectful teenager?
Maybe he mutters under his breath when you ask him to do his homework.
Or maybe she slams her bedroom door when you tell her she can’t go out with her friends.
If so, you’re probably at your wits’ end.
You love your teenagers and you want the best for them.
But you also want them to accept that there are rules in your family, just as there are rules in the outside world.
Don’t be alarmed. Disrespect towards parents is common as youngsters navigate the waters between childhood and adulthood.
But you can’t deal with disrespect by simply ignoring it.
You need a strategy. There are things you need to do, and things you need to avoid doing.
This article explains 10 tips for successfully handling disrespectful teenagers.
1. Understand the teenage brain
During childhood, there’s tremendous brain development. By age six, 95% of the brain’s structure has already been formed.
Picture it as a sudden development of the wiring of the brain.
The problem is that the new wiring hasn’t yet been connected to the key parts of the brain.
As Molly Edmonds writes, the teenage brain is like an entertainment centre whose components haven’t yet been hooked up.
There are loose wires everywhere. The speaker system hasn’t been connected to the DVD player. And the DVD player hasn’t been configured to work with the TV.
And as for the remote control – it hasn’t even arrived yet!
In this analogy, the remote control is the prefrontal cortex.
That’s the part of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments, and controls impulses and emotions. But in the teenage brain, it hasn’t been properly connected yet.
What does this mean in practice?
It means teenagers can get frustrated easily, with themselves and with external situations. It makes them impulsive and subject to mood swings that you and I don’t experience.
That’s a heady cocktail that can turn teenagers into emotional wrecks.
Understanding that there’s a biological basis for your teenager’s difficult behaviour makes it much easier to deal with.
It helps you to focus on the behaviour rather than the person.
2. Think about the emotional needs underlying the behaviour
When teenagers are disrespectful to their parents, it’s sometimes a sign that they have emotional needs that aren’t being met.
Sometimes the disrespectful behaviour is a way of getting attention.
Other times, it’s an indication that they don’t feel accepted.
Sit down with your teenager and tell her that you’re there for her if she wants to talk about something. Remind her that you love her unconditionally.
Keep in mind that adolescents often feel powerless. As part of the process of growing up, teenagers need to differentiate themselves from their parents.
This often takes the form of adopting views that are radically different from yours.
Another important part of teenage development is establishing emotional autonomy. This usually involves taking back some of the power from their parents.
The most common way to do this is for the teenager to challenge the rules through conflict and confrontation.
While it may not entirely solve the problem, understanding the emotional needs underlying your teenager’s behaviour will help you to empathise with him.
3. Be a role model
The most important thing you can do is model the kind of behaviour you want to see in your teenager.
It’s amazing how many parents call their children disrespectful and then model the very behaviour they’re criticising.
Remember, your children are constantly watching you as a role model.
If you want your teenagers to be respectful towards you, you need to adopt a respectful attitude towards them, towards your spouse, and towards people outside the family.
This is especially important when your teenager is testing boundaries.
Always try to rise above the level of your teenager’s behaviour. You can’t win by descending to their level. You can only win by being calm, consistent and modelling a better kind of behaviour.
Ideally, this role modelling is something that should start early in the life of your child.
But it’s never too late!
4. Understand that your teenager is developing independence
Severe disrespect towards parents should never be tolerated.
But it’s important to understand that some level of disrespect is part of the process of growing up and developing independence.
Examples of this kind of disrespect might be eye-rolling, unnecessary remarks, or ignored requests.
Children grow up in an environment where the balance of power lies with the parents. Surrounded by rules and expectations, children tend to feel powerless.
Talking back and other forms of mild disrespect are simply ways for your teenager to feel as if he’s taking back some of that power.
It’s a natural process: your teenager is learning to express himself and to have his own ideas.
And developing independence is a vital aspect of growing up.
5. Ignore mild forms of disrespect
There’s a scene in The Sound of Music where Captain von Trapp lines his children up and summons each of them with a whistle.
In the von Trapp family, the father demands absolute respect.
But that’s neither healthy nor desirable.
In fact, it’s usually best to ignore mildly disrespectful behaviour such as shrugging the shoulders, raised eyebrows, feigned boredom, or muttering under the breath.
Disrespectful behaviour in teenagers is common and is part of the process of growing up.
But blatant rudeness should never be tolerated. Ignoring it will simply lead to an escalation of such behaviour.
6. Set clear and consistent boundaries
One of the most common causes of disrespect in teenagers is the absence of boundaries.
Children who have been spoilt or allowed to have their own way often become disrespectful teenagers.
In families where there are very few firm rules, disrespect amongst teenagers is almost inevitable.
Families in which the parents do have rules for kids’ behaviour but apply them inconsistently are also likely to produce disrespectful teenagers.
Inconsistency can occur where a parent arbitrarily applies different rules on different days for no apparent reason.
For example, allowing a child to stay up till 10:30pm on one weekday but insisting they turn their lights out by 8:30pm the next weekday.
Inconsistency can also arise where two parents apply different rules. For example, one parent might insist on no more than an hour of screen time in the evenings while the other parent imposes no time limit at all.
Here are two reasons why inconsistent rules contribute to the problem of disrespectful teenagers:
- Where one parent is lax and the other is strict, teenagers learn to exploit the inconsistency and play one parent against the other
- Where a parent is lax on some days and strict on others, teenagers can use the inconsistency to question the rules
So it’s important that parents set clear rules and boundaries and apply them consistently.
Whenever possible, discuss these boundaries with your teenager before they’re set.
7. If you set consequences, follow through on them
While it’s a good idea to acknowledge your teenager’s good behaviour, sometimes you may have to set consequences for their bad behaviour.
If you do, it’s important to follow through on these consequences.
A common mistake parents make is to threaten consequences in the heat of the moment and then fail to act on them.
Believe it or not, teenagers are looking for boundaries. They want to know where the boundaries are – that’s why they test the boundaries.
When you follow through on consequences, your teenager feels safer because she knows where the boundaries are. She learns to trust you because she knows you stand by your word.
But most importantly, she learns that the behaviour in question is not acceptable.
Here are some tips on setting consequences for bad behaviour:
- Make the consequences short term, not long term. When the consequence is short term, the teenager has a chance to learn quickly and move on.
- Don’t make the consequences too harsh.
- Don’t add punitive statements (such as “I told you this was going to happen”) to the consequence. Let the consequence speak for itself. Punitive statements will arouse feelings of anger and resentment in the teenager instead of allowing her to focus on the bad behaviour and its consequences.
8. Don’t make it personal
When dealing with a disrespectful teenager, it’s easy to get caught up in your own emotions. When you do that, you’re likely to make it personal.
But that’s a mistake, because what you need to be focusing on is the behaviour, not the person.
When you focus on the behaviour and not the person, it makes it easier for everyone to stay calm. It allows both you and your teenager to avoid getting emotional.
9. Avoid unnecessary arguments
Engaging in an argument with a disrespectful teenager is rarely going to have a positive outcome. Arguments have a tendency to escalate and get out of control.
When we get angry we say things we later regret.
Instead, stay calm and remember that you want to focus on the behaviour and not get into a power struggle.
But this isn’t always easy, because adolescents experience a whirlwind of emotions.
Remember that as an adult you’re better able to control your emotions than your teenager. It’s an advantage you should put to good use.
10. Avoid using “you are” and “you should” statements
When confronting your teenager about unacceptable behaviour, avoid making statements such as: “You are such a selfish/lazy/uncooperative/rude person.”
Also avoid making statements such as: “You should stop using your phone so much/work harder/pay attention in class/be more responsible.”
Remember, you want to focus on the behaviour instead of casting judgment on your teenager.
Use statements that focus specifically on the behaviour, such as: “When you ignore my requests/shout at me, I feel disrespected.”
The teenage years are challenging, both for teenagers and their parents.
And disrespectful teenage behaviour is one of the most troubling issues for parents to deal with.
The tips in this article will help you navigate these difficult waters and avoid running aground.
In particular, target the behaviour and not the person, and develop an understanding of the teenage brain and how it shapes your teenager’s behaviour.
Focus on one tip at a time. When you have that aspect under control, implement another tip.
Gradually, you’ll see an improvement in your teenager’s behaviour – and family life will become more harmonious!
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