“Don’t you walk away when I’m talking to you!”
“Don’t ‘but Mom’ me. I’m not finished here!”
Sigh. Eye roll.
“You’re losing your phone for a week for being so disrespectful.”
Bedroom door slams.
“Make that two, you ungrateful little brat!”
Maybe things aren’t this bad in your home. Maybe they are worse.
The adolescent years are difficult for many families. To make things more complicated, puberty begins earlier and children leave home permanently later than in any previous generation. This means parents may spend more time navigating changes and challenges that arise as their children become adults.
Developmental stages are determined by internal biological clocks. The age at which a child learns to walk, begins talking, understands object permanence, understands that death is permanent, or develops romantic attractions is determined mostly by biology, not parenting. It is often easier for a parent not to personalize their 4-year-old repeatedly asking “why?” than it is not to take the individuation attempts of a teen personally. On top of stress that may occur as teenagers find their independence, parents are often exhausted from work, household responsibilities, parenting obligations, and extended family needs.
Burnout and Parents of Teenagers
Many households are run by single parents or have a disabled parent in the home. Trying to squeeze in a little self-care, exercise, and time with friends may seem nearly impossible when it’s needed most.
I invite parents who seek counseling with me to first consider if heated exchanges at home are, in part, a signal they are burned out. When parents are sleep-deprived, experiencing relationship issues, or neglecting activities that recharge their emotional batteries, it is often apparent in the tone they set for the household.
Why Is Your Teenager Disrespectful?
Adolescent anger or angst is not a parent’s fault. In fact, outward expressions of anger may be a sign of adolescent depression. If this is a concern, calmly take your teen to a licensed counselor or to their physician to be evaluated. Most tension between parents and adolescents is a normal part of individuation. Remember, it is up to the adult, not the adolescent, to stop the back-and-forth.
Adolescents do not have the insight, power, or privileges adults do. They can’t sign legal documents or stay out past curfew, and they depend on their parents for finances, health care, extracurricular activities, vacations, clothes—nearly everything. A teenager’s dependency is often at odds with their strong emotional desire for independence. This battle rages within the teen and more often than not, spills over onto those closest to them.
Handling Disrespectful Behavior: Be the Example
Respecting a teen’s feelings is not the same as giving them everything they want. Validating that an adolescent has the right to hope and dream for anything without caving in to their demands can build mutual respect and foster dignity. In households where parents are confident in the parameters they set, the teen can express their frustration, agitation, even anger, and the parent does not take their emotions personally.
It is impossible to teach an adolescent respect by displaying disrespect. Scolding, shouting, belittling, redundancy, physical aggression, and humiliating, no matter how deserving of these the teen may seem at the moment, will only result in the same tactics being used against the parent.
Adolescent moods can change moment to moment. Parents who focus primarily on making a teen happy tend to defend themselves, try to get the teen to see things their way, and shame the teen if they express uncomfortable emotions about the parent’s decision. When parents are clear they are responsible for their own emotions and don’t blame others (including their children) for how they feel, it’s easier for a teen to understand they are also responsible for their own feelings.
It is impossible to teach an adolescent respect by displaying disrespect. Scolding, shouting, belittling, redundancy, physical aggression, and humiliating, no matter how deserving of these the teen may seem at the moment, will only result in the same tactics being used against the parent. These are often employed by the teen in less sophisticated or polite ways.
6 Tips for Parents with Disrespectful Teens
What is the alternative for parents? Those with disrespectful teens may find the following tips helpful.
1. Model respect.
Set up expectations ahead of time. Write them down. Be consistent and don’t change your mind at the last minute. If you feel resentful about a privilege you are giving, set up a predictable reward system and have your adolescent earn that privilege. Doing so may make it easier not to hold privileges over their head when you feel taken for granted.
2. Don’t get sucked into arguments about facts or perceived facts.
Your teen has much more time and energy than you do to collect good argument data. Remember that you have the right to set a boundary just because you’re comfortable with it.
If you are clear with yourself about what you will contribute (phone, computer, driving to a friend’s house, money, shopping, entertainment, etc.), you may spend less time in conversations defending yourself and your decisions. You might also have more energy to validate your teen’s feelings. Use phrases such as, “I can see you are disappointed,” “It’s okay to be upset,” and “It looks like you’re frustrated.” Don’t try to show your teen a different way to look at the situation. They may interpret this as an attempt to change how they feel or think that you believe how they feel is wrong.
3. Practice active listening.
Demonstrate you are really listening and that you have compassion for their frustration. Adolescents are trying to figure out who they are, separate from their parents. They are experimenting with ways to cope with strong emotions. The more methods for handling strong feelings you demonstrate, the more ideas they may have to choose from.
4. Take time for yourself.
Spend time with quality friends, exercise, pursue a creative outlet, listen to music, dance, laugh, write, plan outings, eat healthy foods, learn something new, organize your surroundings, go to therapy, garden, or volunteer where you feel appreciated. Show your adolescent that everyone is responsible for their own happiness and peace of mind.
5. Be sure to laugh.
Lead conversations with humor. Don’t take every conversation so seriously. Laughter lightens up a household, but sarcasm or belittling humor do not.
6. Give compliments.
So many seemingly bad behaviors in teenagers stem from a desire to be addressed. Be sure you are giving at least five compliments for every one directive, which is telling your teen what to do or how to change. Finding things to compliment may be hard to do in a defiant adolescent. Push yourself a bit. The more you model that you admire your child, the more they may see what respect looks like.
If you continue to feel frustrated with the arguments and attitudes in your home, consider family therapy. The sooner a family seeks treatment, the easier it can be to begin moving toward a harmonious, respectful household.
With some focused effort, the opening conversation in this article can sound more like:
“I can see you’re done talking about this. I’ll send you a text with the rest of what I want to say.”
“It’s okay, I’ll text you. It’s a good strategy to spend some quiet time alone.”
Sigh. Eye roll.
“We’ll talk later.”
Bedroom door slams.
“I know this is hard. Hang in there, we’ll get through this. I love you.”
Sawyer, M. S., Azzopardi, P. S., Wickremarathne, D., & Patton, G. C. (2017, January 17). The age of adolescence. The Lancet: Child and Adolescent Health, 3(2), 223-228. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2352-4642(18)30022-1
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