About disrespectful behaviour in teenagers

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 might 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 simple conversations turn into arguments.

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

Disrespect: where does it come from?

Not all teenagers are rude or disrespectful, but some disrespect is a normal part of teenage growth and development.

This is partly because 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  and a good sign that your child is trying to take more responsibility. But he’s also still learning about how to handle disagreement and differing opinions appropriately.

Also, your child’s moods can change quickly. Because of how teenage brains develop, your child isn’t always able to handle her changing feelings and reactions to everyday or unexpected things. And this can sometimes lead to over-sensitivity, which can lead in turn to grumpiness or rudeness.

Sometimes disrespectful behaviour might also be a sign that your child is feeling particularly stressed or worried.

And 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. Some young people seem to burst into the world with a conflicting and radical view on everything. This shift to deeper thinking is a normal part of development too.

No matter how grumpy or cross your child gets, he still values time talking and connecting with you. You just might need to be a little more understanding if he’s short-tempered or changeable. It can help to remember that this phase will usually pass.

Handling your teenage child’s disrespectful behaviour

Tips for discipline

  • 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 discussions about rules means you can later remind her that she helped make the rules, and that she agreed to them.
  • Focus on your child’s behaviour and how you feel about it. Avoid any comments about your child’s personality or character. Instead of saying, ‘You’re rude’, try something like, ‘I feel hurt when you speak like that to me’. It’s OK to occasionally say clearly how you’re feeling – ‘I’m feeling furious with you just now. You’d feel the same’.
  • 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.

Tips for communication

  • 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.
  • Use humour. A shared laugh can break a stalemate, bring a new perspective or lighten the tone of a conversation. Being lighthearted 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 looks if he’s generally behaving the way you’d like him to.
  • Check your understanding. 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 behave rudely?’.
  • Give your child descriptive praise when she communicates in a positive way. When you have a positive interaction, point this out to your child. This lets her know you’re aware of and value her opinions.

Tips for relationships

  • 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.  For example, if you swear a lot your child might find it difficult to understand why it’s not OK for him to swear.
  • If there’s a lot of tension between you and your child, another adult you know and trust, like 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 strain.
  • Check in with your child to make sure there’s nothing that’s making her feel particularly stressed or worried.

Things to avoid with teenage disrespect

Arguing 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 and your child some time to calm down.

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 your child that you want to talk, and agree on a time.

Being defensive is very rarely useful. Try not to take things personally. It might help to remind yourself that your child is trying to assert his independence.

Even though you have more life experience than your child, lecturing her about how to behave is likely to turn her off listening. If you want your child to listen to you, you might need to spend time actively listening to her.

Nagging isn’t likely to have much effect. It might increase your frustration, and your child will probably just switch off.

Sarcasm will almost certainly create resentment and increase the distance between you and your child.

When to be concerned about teenage disrespect

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’s a deeper problem.

You might also be worried if there are changes in your child’s attitude or mood, if he withdraws from family, friends or usual activities, or if he runs away from home or stops going to school regularly.

If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, here are some things you can do:

  • Consider seeking professional support – good people to talk to include school counsellors, teachers and your GP.
  • Discuss the issue as a family, to work out ways of supporting each other.
  • Talk to other parents and find out what they do.
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.