Teens and Disrespect

Why is it that our children suddenly become experts on respect when they become teenagers? I’m not saying they become experts in treating others with respect. No, I am saying they become experts in knowing when they are not being treated with respect by adults.

How do we know this? It’s easy. Our kids tell us by saying things like “this is stupid” or “I don’t care” in a nasty tone of voice. Or they yell at or hit their younger siblings. Sometimes we get sucked into arguments and fighting with our teens by responding, “Don’t you use that tone with me young lady” or “You listen up buster” or how about “Don’t you dare do that again.” Then things go downhill from there.

As children grow up and their brains change from concrete thinking (thinking in absolute terms or black and white thinking) to more abstract thinking (developing the ability to reason and understand exceptions to rules), they develop a one-way inward respect monitor. It’s a one-way monitor because it only goes off when they feel disrespected, not when they are being disrespectful. The development of this monitor usually occurs around the same time kids bodies start to change and their moods start to change as well. They tend to be more sensitive and take things more personally than they would have when they were younger. Sometimes they get into a bad mood and say and do mean things. How should we handle this? Should we just attribute it to them being a teenager and accept it? Should we attack it and stomp out the bad behavior before it becomes worse? Either of these extremes tends not to work in the long run.

Rather than ignoring or trying to control our teens behaviors, we can focus on controlling our own behaviors. In Jim Fay’s audio CD Hormones and Wheels, Jim shares three helpful things to remember while raising teens:

1. Rather than telling teens what to do (which is usually when they feel disrespected the most) we can tell them what we will do by using enforceable statements.

2. We can also give them as many choices as possible within reasonable limits that the parent feels comfortable with (these choices should effect the teen, not the parent).

3. Make sure we show forth empathy before applying the consequences.

Even though it gets very tempting to return that same disrespect to our kids when they start to get nasty and mouthy, it is good to remember that when we return the same disrespect to them, our teens often feel justified for disrespecting us in the first place. It is much more effective not to respond in the moment, but wait for an opportunity for a significant learning experience-like just before he wants to go to his friend’s house and he needs you to take him. That would be a perfect moment to say, “I’ll be glad to take you to the places you want to go when I feel I am being treated with respect.” And when he tries to argue, just repeat the same phrase over and over and over and over again in a calm and sincere voice.

Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist and an independent facilitator of Love and Logic curricula. He currently teaches parenting classes in Mesa and Queen Creek, AZ and provides in-home therapy and counseling services. Shiloh has three children of his own and he manages the parenting website http://www.parentarizona.com.  For more information about the child and family therapy that Shiloh offers, please visit http://www.arizonafamilyinstitute.com.

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