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Disrespectful Child Behavior: Where Do You Draw the Line?

By James Lehman, MSW

As a parent, how do you know for sure if your child's behavior has crossed the line and become truly disrespectful? I believe the distinction between mild rebelliousness and disrespect has to be drawn very clearly. And here's how you determine whether or not your child has gone too far: when he 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 saying, "You're a jerk. You can't make me. I don't care what the rules are, I'm not doing it!" Make no mistake, there is a distinction between eye-rolling and your child shouting, "You're stupid." I think parents need to really understand this difference at a core level.

Many parents I've worked with through the years didn't know where to draw the line when it came to their child's disrespectful behavior. When their teen or pre-teen expressed themselves in mildly rebellious ways, it frightened them. They would sit in my office and say, "If I don't stop my teen's eye-rolling, next she'll be calling me a jerk." I'd usually reply, "Well, the question is, did she ever call you a jerk 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.

By the way, I understand that parents are often afraid things are going to get more difficult with their adolescents. If you're parenting a teen or pre-teen, you're probably living with the fear that things can get worse; as we all know, kids in that age group can be very moody and stubborn. It's such a delicate balance during adolescence: while it's important to allow for the natural "breaking away" process that comes during the teen years, parents also have to be sure to identify and challenge any truly disrespectful behavior that is hurtful, rude or demeaning to others.

Don't Take it Personally
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. Often, the 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. Now let's take it one step further: When the adolescent doesn't comply, the parent feels disrespected--and they 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--it 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?" The kid gives them some excuse, and 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." The parent comes back with, "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." While giving the child this consequence is fair, if the parent then says, "You have no right to disrespect me that way" and they take it personally, they're on the wrong track.

One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to take their child's behavior personally. The truth is, you should never fall into that trap because 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. 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--and often overreact or under react to the situation. When they overreact, they become too rigid, and when they under react, they ignore the behavior or tell themselves it's "just a phase." Either way, it won't help your child learn to manage his thoughts or emotions more effectively, and be more respectful.

Disrespectful Things 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. My wife and I would simply look at each other and chuckle after he'd left and say, "Yeah, yeah, whatever--just go do your homework." I personally think that 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.

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 where that line between disrespect and mild rebelliousness is, sit down with them 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." Always put these ideas together for your kids: responsibility, accountability, and consequences. What that looks like is, "You're responsible to behave a certain way. I'm going to hold you accountable for that behavior, and there will be consequences if you don't take responsibility for it." Just complete that circle for your child so they can see the relationship between these three important ideas.

Here's an example. 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. And I just want to remind you that if you're rude or hurtful to her, it's as bad as being disrespectful to me. And the consequence for that kind of behavior is..." And let him know what is going to happen. Let's see how that conversation might go:

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 in an effective way. That's not acceptable in this home."
Note that the parent here took her son's phone away for a relatively short period of 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--in order to earn back his cell phone. 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.

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. Let's make no bones about that. If you call your kids names, if you yell at others in a condescending way, 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.

Disrespectful Child Behavior is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine. James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. This program offers practical, real world solutions for the most challenging problems parents face: defiance, disrespect, back talk, lying, cursing, lack of motivation, acting out in school and more. In this step-by-step program you'll learn the techniques James has used in his private practice to help children take responsibility for their behavior and help parents get back in control of their homes.

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