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Disrespectful or rude behaviour in teenagers is something many parents face at some point. Although the phase will pass eventually, there are some strategies that can help you manage this kind of behaviour in the meantime.

Teen with hand in front of face
 

Sometimes you might feel that interactions with your child all seem a bit like this:

You – ‘How’s that book project going?’
Your child
– ‘Why are you checking up on me? Don’t you trust me? I always get good marks, so why ask me about it?’
You
– ‘I was only asking. I just wanted to know if you’re going OK with it ...’
Your child
– ‘Sure you were ... mumble, mumble, mumble.’

As a parent, you can feel hurt, worried and unsure about what’s happened when you have conversations like this. Your child used to value your interest or input, but now it seems that even the most simple conversations can turn into arguments.

There are reasons for your child’s behaviour. And there’s also good news: this phase will end.

What you need to know

Not all teenagers will be rude or disrespectful, but acting like this is a normal part of teenage growth and development. Your child is learning to express and test out his own independent ideas, so there will be times when you disagree. Developing independence is a key part of growing up. 

Also, teenagers can be quite moody because of how teenage brains develop and change. The changes going on, especially those affecting the emotional centre of the brain, can sometimes lead to over-sensitivity, as well as changeable moods or attitudes.

Teenagers are starting to think in a deeper way than they did a few years earlier, and they can have thoughts and feelings they’ve never had before. It’s now that some young people seem to burst into the world with a contrary and radical view on everything. This shift to deeper thinking is a normal part of development.

No matter how grumpy or cross your child gets, she still values your communication. It’s important to keep talking to her – you just might need to be a little more understanding if she’s short-tempered or moody, and remember that this phase will end. In the meantime, you might like to read our article on staying connected to your child.

Handling your teen’s disrespectful behaviour

  • Set clear rules about behaviour and communication. For example, you could say, ‘We speak respectfully in our family. This means we don’t call people names’. Involving your child in these discussions about rules means you can later remind him that he helped make the rules, and that he agreed to them.
  • Stay calm. This is important if your child reacts with ‘attitude’ to a discussion. Stop, take a deep breath, and continue calmly with what you wanted to say.
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person. When you need to talk about some disrespectful behaviour, focus on the behaviour and how you feel about it. Avoid any comments about your child’s personality or character. Instead of saying, ‘You’re rude’, you could try saying something like, ‘I feel hurt when you speak like that to me’. It’s OK to occasionally say clearly how you’re feeling – ‘I am feeling furious with you just now. It’s hard to be spoken to like that. You would feel the same’.
  • Be a role model. When you’re with your child, try to speak and act the way you want your child to speak and act towards you.
  • Praise your teenager for positive communication. When you have a positive interaction, point this out to your child. This lets her know you’re aware of and value her opinions.
  • Set and use consequences but try not to set too many. At times, it might be appropriate to use consequences  for things like rudeness, swearing or name-calling.
  • Use humour. A shared laugh can break a stalemate, offer a different perspective on a situation, or lighten the tone of a conversation. Being light-hearted can also help take the heat out of a situation – but avoid mocking, ridiculing or being sarcastic.
  • Ignore your child’s shrugs, raised eyes and bored look if he’s generally behaving the way you’d like him to. 
  • Sometimes teenagers are disrespectful without meaning to be rude. A useful response can be something like, ‘That comment came across as pretty offensive. Did you mean to be rude?’
  • Another adult you know and trust, such as an aunt, uncle or family friend, might be able to support your child through this period. Involving someone like this can be a great way to ease the tension between you and your child.
Our Talking to Teens interactive guide explores some tricky parent and teenager situations. For example, you can see how different approaches to handling disrespectful teenage behaviour can get different results.

Things to avoid 

  • Arguing: this rarely works for parents or teenagers. When we get angry, we can say things we don’t mean. A more effective approach is to give yourself some time to calm down.
  • Bad timing: few of us want to talk about a difficult topic when we’re angry or upset. If you’re angry or in the middle of an argument, it will be hard to calmly discuss what you expect of your child. A more effective approach is to tell her that you want to talk, and agree on a time to meet and discuss the issue later.
  • Being defensive: this is very rarely useful. Try not to take things personally.
  • Lecturing: even though you have more life experience than your child, lecturing him about how to behave is likely to turn him off listening. If you want your child to listen to you, you might need to spend time actively listening to him.
  • Nagging: this isn’t likely to have much effect. It might increase your frustration, and your child will probably just switch off.
  • Sarcasm: this will almost certainly create resentment and increase the distance between you and your child.

When to be concerned

If your child’s ‘attitude’ towards you and your family doesn’t respond to any of the strategies suggested above, it might be a warning sign that there is a deeper problem.

You might also be worried if there are changes in your child’s attitude, along with other changes such as mood swings, withdrawal from family or friends and usual activities, or poor school attendance.

If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, you could:

  • discuss the issue as a family, to work out ways of supporting each other
  • talk to other parents and find out what they do
  • consider seeking professional support – good people to start with include school counsellors, teachers and your GP.
Looking after yourself, especially your physical and emotional wellbeing, can help you stay calm and consistent when things get tough. Friends and family can be a great source of support, as can parents of other teenagers. You might like to connect in our online forum for parents of pre-teens or our online forum for parents of early teens.
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  • Last Updated 18-09-2010
  • Last Reviewed 13-08-2012
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    Romer, D., & Walker E.F. (2007). Adolescent psychopathology and the developing brain. Oxford University Press.