As a family psychologist, I’ve found that a parental concern even more common than the ubiquitous Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is disrespect. Whether it’s talking back, having an attitude, or refusing to listen, disrespect is often at the top of the problem list parents bring to my office. I typically search for ways to move disrespect down the list.
Valuing People or Valuing Power?
It’s difficult to suggest putting the topic off until later because respect is very important. However, we parents too often fall into demanding respect and forcing children to comply. With threats, punishment, shaming, bribes, and rewards, we use various forms of our power to get kids to respect authority. Our success has been our downfall. We’ve unwittingly taught kids to respect the power and control of authority, losing sight of the more important goal of respecting relationships and respecting each other as individuals.
We’ve taught kids to value power and control so much that they want it for themselves. When kids set out to gain this elevated standing, power struggles with their parents can grow. This explains a phenomenon I observe in my office: the more a parent identifies with power and control, the more likely they are locked in protracted conflict with one or more of their children.
As a counselor, respect for power and authority typically is not at the top of my list. We need to demonstrate respect for each other and for relationships, not for power and control. We need to win children’s respect, not try to demand or force it. Coercing respect might bring compliance but it doesn’t build true respect for each other. Respect is won by giving it and earned by acknowledgement of innate worth and equality. Children are our equals, not in skill or knowledge, but in human dignity. We should treat them as such.
Gaining children’s respect begins with treating them respectfully and focusing on the relationship. Here are some suggestions:
- Strive for cooperation, not compliance. Cooperation connotes mutual consideration and the freedom to contribute one’s opinion and influence. Compliance can be mindless submission and always requires less investment from the child.
- In general, don’t do for a child what the child can do for him/herself. Undue service is disrespectful.
- Be consistent in your expectations. Being lax one day and firm the next shows disrespect for the relationship—it demonstrates that your mood and energy level come before the parent/child relationship in importance.
- Separate the deed from the doer, stay problem focused, and work toward agreements via discussion.
- Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Follow through. Respect kids enough to know they understand the issue. They don’t need repeated reminders, repeated explanations, or threats.
- State the problem as a social problem. Note how the problem detracts from intimacy and enjoyment of each other, and then ask for help in solving the difficulty. “When you two fight in the car, I don’t enjoy being with you and I don’t feel like taking you with me next time. What should we do about this?”
- Don’t talk down to children. Get rid of the cartoon voice and show genuine emotion.
© Copyright 2008 by John Petersen, Psy.D., therapist in South Bend, Indiana. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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