How to Deal with Disrespectful Children and Adolescents

Preteen makes "talk to the hand" gesture to motherIf you pay close attention to social media, music messages, and news trends, you’d be forgiven for thinking disrespectful and rude behavior from children and adolescents is on the rise. The challenges of modern parenting certainly add a layer of complexity. In many families, the authoritarian parenting styles of previous generations have given way to a gentler approach to managing problem behaviors in kids, some of whom have less direct supervision with two parents working and thus more time to be influenced by peers.

Simply put, many parents don’t have the time or resources needed to thoroughly work through undesirable behaviors with their children. As a result, many children have a limited understanding of how to behave respectfully and appropriately.

Where Does Disrespectful Behavior Come From?

When your child or adolescent begins to behave disrespectfully toward you, it is a clear indication you’ve lost some control in the relationship. As a parent, it may be time to change how you respond to your child’s behavior. It is crucial to be consistent in your response going forward and to take your power back. You don’t have to adopt an authoritarian style of discipline in order to establish a clear, firm set of ground rules regarding what behavior will be tolerated and what will not.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that not all unpleasant behaviors are coming from an unhealthy place. It is not unusual for children and adolescents to challenge authority by rolling their eyes, talking back, or otherwise demonstrating an attitude. When kids behave in this way, they are often pushing back in the normal course of individuation, or developing a sense of self separate from their parents.

How to Avoid Power Struggles

Once you have emotionally entered into a power struggle with your child or adolescent, you have lost. The following are strategies to avoid being pulled into a power struggle:

  1. Do not take what is said by your child or adolescent personally. Although this can be difficult if your child or adolescent is swearing in your face or name-calling, getting swept up in the words and the heated emotions behind them will only undermine your message, which is: I am in charge here. Period.
  2. Have a plan ready. If your child or adolescent has been successful in embroiling you into a fight or a power struggle in the past, be prepared for them to try to do it again. Plan ahead about what you are going to do when your kid attempts to pull you in again. Plan to take a calm, businesslike tone. Know your limits in advance, plan to state them, and walk away. Plan to avoid engaging in push-pull.
  3. Give your child or adolescent an active role in resolving problematic behavior. I often recommend to parents that they involve their child or adolescent in discussions about what they believe the consequences for disrespectful behavior should be. If your kid has a voice in what happens, they may have more buy-in. Once consequences have been determined, you may decide to give the consequence and have a follow-up discussion later about what happened.
  4. Be consistent. Perhaps the most difficult part about parenting is being consistent, yet it is also the most important part. If you want your child or adolescent to take you seriously and behave differently in the future, you must be steady in your responses and the disciplinary measures you employ.
  5. Be clear about your role. As a parent, your role is to teach and model respectful behavior and effective problem solving in order to help your child or adolescent function appropriately and successfully. Your job is to help them grow into responsible, respectful adults in an increasingly challenging world. That means setting reasonable rules and limits, and being prepared to enforce them. Let it be known that while you love your child unconditionally, you won’t tolerate disrespect—toward you or anyone else.

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  • Amy H

    August 15th, 2016 at 8:52 AM

    Well I know how my parents dealt with us but pretty sure that is sort of frowned upon today.

  • Tess

    August 16th, 2016 at 7:04 AM

    Over the years we have definitively had to learn to choose which battles we are going to argue over. Not every single thing that happens is going to be worthy of raising my blood pressure that’s for sure; and not everything is going to be worth her being mad at me for days over. If you start teaching them manners and respect when they are young and are willing to be fluid with what they can or cannot do, I think that they will respect you even more as they get older.

  • jamice

    August 16th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    In my house there was no such thing as being disrespectful. That was never the expectation at all.
    You either did what our parents told us that we were going to do, or, well, there wasn’t really an or. There was no choice in the matter because from a very early age we were taught to not question their authority and none of us ever dared to do that.

  • Sueanne

    August 16th, 2016 at 3:32 PM

    One big thing that I notice about parents today that was certainly not true when I was younger is that I think there are a lot of parents who want to be their kids’ friends and not their parents.
    The way I see it is that my kids have tons of friends, that’s not my role and they don’t need more friends.
    They need me to be in that role as a parent and later on we can be friends but that is not my primary role or my duty to them.

  • Pj

    August 16th, 2016 at 4:00 PM

    There is nothing for me to do. My son 14 at the time hung up on me three times while he was with his father. I asked father to speak to him but instead offered no discipline (as he just doesn’t dicipline him) but instead offered pity and never brought him back when i asked and my son refused to return to my house for fear of my discipline which would have been to take his phone away for a few days. He’s been gone for 3 years. Nobody cares. We were so incredibly close for 14 years. I’m still suffering from the shock and loss and confusion which turns into either weeping rage or panic attacks. He’s gonna be 17 in Sept. I’ll never have him as a child under my roof again. I can’t tell you how I waffle between rage and sadness. As I write this I weep…but behind my tears is such deep anger. It is just so unjust.

  • jessica

    September 24th, 2016 at 6:53 AM

    I have never responded to anyone on the internet before but when I read your story it broke my heart. I have a 9 year old and I worry sometimes the same could happen to us. I am also a mental health therapist. I counseling many many young men (in the Marine Corp) and I have heard numerous stories similar to yours. The men (now in their early 20’s), did want a relationship with their mother but felt that bc the mother did not persist in having one with them that she didn’t care anymore. Don’t give up! He hasn’t forgotten how close you to were either and he still loves you. He is just taken the safety road now and with his dad’s support he has a way of avoiding what is hard which is to repair the relationship with you. Don’t let him thing that you don’t think about him everyday and want a relationship with him still. Reach out to him anyway you can. Write a letter tell him you miss him and you love him and that you wish things were different. Believe me he hurts too and there is a part of him that is COUNTING ON YOU to make the first move to show him that parents don’t give up. Please don’t give up. He will come back to you!

  • Talia

    August 17th, 2016 at 7:48 AM

    aww PJ that story is heartbreaking. Have you trued getting the courts involved at all? It doesn’t seem right that you would have no visitation with him.

  • mary

    August 17th, 2016 at 10:43 AM

    I firmly believe that consistency is the key to being a success in raising your child. I know that there are some who are more difficult than others, but if there is any way that you can just sort of stay neutral and keep things even across the board I think that your kids understand early on that you are not a pushover and that they can’t get away with treating an adult in their lives this way.

  • Garrett

    August 19th, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    My parents just seem to take everything so personally. They think that every time I get upset or mad that they can either help or that is revolves around them. I would be a whole lot more willing to let them in every now and then if they would just agree to give me space when I need it.

  • Margaret

    May 16th, 2019 at 3:29 PM

    Well, Garrett, while I agree with the space issue to an extent, I DO NOT agree with your being rude or disrespectful to your parents. You have absolutely no right to that kind of behavior when they are financially supporting you. They are the boss PERIOD.

  • rOSS

    August 22nd, 2016 at 11:29 AM

    They follow our examples as adults. What if it is actually the adults in their lives being disrespectful to them?

  • Qmom

    September 1st, 2016 at 1:19 PM

    Well I have a child with ADHD and odd and we have tried everything from rewards to positive recognition to taking things away. Recently we had to send him with a family member for a week. It has become so bad that we are talking about separating our family because of how angry and violent he becomes at times. I don’t believe that the text books can address every child and situation.

  • dthomas

    November 29th, 2016 at 3:38 AM

    I’m sorry this is happening. Have you considered residential treatment?

  • Qmom

    November 29th, 2016 at 8:17 AM

    My son now sees a therapist once a week and a psychiatrist to keep track of his meds . He is actually doing so much better and is also going to be enrolled in the wrap around program. I strongly suggest The Penn Foundation. It is amazing!!!

  • Lizette L

    February 13th, 2017 at 8:59 AM

    Being the loving parent with the estranged child that cannot see the love is very heartbreaking…

  • Gabrielle

    July 18th, 2018 at 9:16 AM

    i too have a 9 year old and it would brake my heart if this happened to us we really close and i always think that she is the disrespectful one but i know now that she is not the only one and to be a good parent i need to be respectful to. along with my son i would hate for us to end like this hating each other and not talking to each other would just break my heart.

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