Child Development

Handling Disrespectful Children: How to Teach Your Child to be Respectful

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If you’re struggling with disrespectful or rude behavior from your child, you’re not alone: this really is one of the biggest conversation topics between parents today. The fact behind the matter is that disrespectful behavior is one of the inappropriate ways kids (especially teens) try to solve their problems and develop independence.

Kids can feel powerless in the face of rules and their parent’s expectations, and talking back /showing disrespect is one way they try to take some control back. As your child becomes older, they’ll naturally seek more independence and mild disrespect is one way that independence gets expressed.

So while it may be healthy and normal in some cases, disrespectful behavior isn’t something you want to let go unchecked as it can quickly escalate. Kids need to learn how to treat others with respect early on so they can develop healthy relationships with peers, authority figures, and most importantly family members.

Here are five ways you can encourage more respectful behavior in your child:

1. Do NOT react or take it personally

If you take the behavior personally when it happens, it’s going to be very hard to respond. If you react to your child’s disrespectful behavior, you’re not likely to see any change in your child. Remember that those mildly irritating behaviors aren’t about you, they’re simply an expression of frustration and lack of power. Your role is to deal with your child’s behavior as objectively as possible.

Instead of allowing yourself to feel hurt or angry (which is a surefire way to get pulled into a power struggle), be clear and direct with your child. If they're being mildly sassy and starting to push some boundaries, you can say, “Don’ttalk to me that way, I don’t like it,” and then turn around and walk away.

Tell them the behavior is wrong and then disengage from them. Remember, you should not attend any fight—or power struggle—your child invites you to. This only enforces their behavior since it empowers their feeling of slight independence.

2. Continue disengaging every time the behavior happens

While we'd love to teach them to be respectful in the heat of the moment, it is nearly impossible to do so. Once your child is angry, disappointed, frustrated, or upset, they turn into survival mode. Their body is flooded with stress chemicals and they are not able to hear and process the lessons you are trying to teach.

Additionally, if you react or take it personally, your brain ALSO goes into survival mode too. You will not be able to think rationally. Your responses will either be filled with anger, yelling and punishment or you will shut down and give up.

Bottom line: neither of you will be in the right state of mind for a lesson on respect when disrespectful behavior occurs.

3. Become prepared for future events

If your child has drawn you into a fight with disrespectful behavior in the past, I guarantee they will try to do it again. Make sure to plan ahead, prepare what statement you would make to set the proper expectation of behavior, and not get caught up in your child’s words. 

You may also consider preparing a consequence for the behavior. This can work well with your statement as you tell your child not to act that way and why, then place a simple consequence on them to end the discussion. The most important thing here is to also plan the follow-up discussion where you talk to your child about what happened and why that wasn’t respectful behavior – this is the key teaching moment and should be prepared in advance.

4. Start leading by example

As a parent, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to show your kids how you manage your behavior when you’re annoyed or upset. Kids learn by copying us, so if you talk badly about others or treat other people with disrespect, don’t be surprised if your child follows suit.

Secondly, when you side with your child when they are showing disrespectful behavior to others, you’re showing them that you can make exceptions to respectful behavior since you support it. Even if you are not the target of the disrespectful behavior, you should still follow the rules above to turn it into an effective lesson for your child.

5. As they improve, reward their good behavior

Make sure to acknowledge the times your child manages to control their behavior, or they may just stop trying. Kids respond well to praise. Not only does it feel good to be praised, but it also gives your child important feedback: acknowledging good behavior reinforces those skills.

At the end of the day, many kids don’t automatically respect their parents (especially step-parents). Indeed, it’s pretty normal that your child (especially teen)thinks they know far more than you. You can’t force respect, but you can teach your child to start acting more respectfully, no matter how they feel about a given situation.
Remember, stay focused on the behavior, and leave the feelings alone. The irony is that, in the long run, your child will respect you more if you remain calm and enforce your rules consistently, than if you react and get into a power struggle fight with them.