When our children speak to us disrespectfully, roll their eyes, or slam doors, it can be tough to stay grounded. These are triggering behaviors for most parents, and most of the time, our immediate reaction is to wield our parental power to make it stop, whether that’s through punishing them or showing our own bigger, bad-er attitude.
“Don’t you dare talk to me that way! You’re grounded!”
This instinctive and understandably defensive, triggered reaction can actually worsen the cycle of disrespect and punishment. Rather than engaging in this negative cycle, it’s helpful to learn to look beyond the behavior and manage our own reactions.
From child development research we know that an outward display of disrespect by a young child is the result of some kind of inner discomfort or pain. We also know that meeting disrespect with more disrespect adds fuel to the fire and closes the doorway to connection.
At the same time, as adults, we deserve to be treated with respect. This is an important lesson for children to learn as well. So what's a parent to do?
7 tips for handling disrespect
1. When your child is disrespectful to you, take a moment to check in with yourself and address what you are feeling.
Self-control is key here, and it takes dedication and practice.
Let go of the fear that meeting a disrespectful child with patience will somehow cause more disrespect to occur. This is one of the myths about positive parenting. We often fear that, if we don’t come down hard, we are being permissive, but this isn’t true.
By remaining calm and kind, we are modeling how to be an adult. We are exhibiting the maturity we want them to develop.
2. Let them know you see them.
Say things like, “I can see you’re feeling upset with me. I am feeling disappointed too. I had no idea the zoo was closed on Mondays.”
Validating the emotion is not validating the behavior. They are separate, and your ability to stay regulated when your child is acting out helps them learn to separate their feelings from their actions. Once they realize they can feel a sad or mad feeling and, at the very same time, still have a choice in their response, the tables will begin to turn. This is how young children learn to regulate emotions. When you model emotional regulation yourself, you are teaching it!
3. Go a step further. Briefly address the tone or disrespect.
“I can see you’re upset with me. I understand how you’re feeling, and being rude isn’t helpful right now. We are on the same team.”
4. Hold your boundary.
Ask your child if they need space right now or if they’d like to talk about their feelings. “Do you want to take a few minutes to calm your body? I want to help, and I’m happy to talk with you about this when you’re ready.”
Or, if your child becomes more upset when you talk, it is helpful to get them to a quiet space and focus on regulating your own emotions. One strategy you can both use and model that requires no words at all is Four Square Breathing: Take a deep breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds and then exhale for four seconds. Hold for four seconds, then repeat.
If your child is being aggressive in any way toward you or is hurling insults, state your boundary clearly. “I don’t feel comfortable with the words you’re using. Let's talk about this when we are both calmer. Until then, I’m going to my room.”
Remember, gentle parent, just because you practice positive parenting, loving relationships come with boundaries, and asserting your boundaries both firmly and respectfully teaches your child to do the same. This is the opposite of co-dependence and a wonderful skill set for children to have modeled for them.
5. Stay curious.
Once everyone is breathing again and things have de-escalated, asking questions about the behaviors you just witnessed can help you discover what initiated it.
Are there problems at school? A disagreement with a friend? Is your child feeling jealous of their new little brother or sister?
Responding rather than reacting allows you to address the root cause of challenging behaviors, helping the challenging behavior to dissolve as well.
6. Calmly discuss with your child how they can better express their feelings.
For example, you might take the opportunity to model the difference in the tone your child used when they were upset with their friend versus what a more respectful tone sounds like. You might even share a few examples of phrases or words a child could use as an alternative to help them communicate the wants and needs they were having trouble expressing.
By breaking these skills down and giving your child alternatives, you are modeling and thus reinforcing positive communication skills.
Talking through and modeling these skills is a crucial step. Without being taught how to regulate big and often overwhelming feelings, children will often resort back to challenging (unwanted) behaviors.
For example, by practicing the social-emotional skills of noticing and naming how they are feeling using the "What Can I Do?" Activity Mat found in the Time-In ToolKit, children as young as even two or three begin to learn what it feels like in their body to feel anger or sadness (aka self-awareness) and what they can do about these big feelings when they do (aka emotional regulation).
By practicing calming strategies in moments of not only chaos but calm, children can learn the vital life skills necessary to replace the often confusing, disrespectful behaviors that leave us scratching our heads.
7. Build your relationship.
Sometimes disrespect is a sign that our kids are feeling disconnected or unseen. Disconnection happens for a variety of reasons and does not necessarily mean a parent or an adult is "at fault". It simply means a child is asking for more connection, love, and/or attention.
Focus on giving your child lots of encouragement, positive affirmations, and positive attention. Laugh together. Spend distraction-free quality time with one another.
Disrespectful behavior is a normal response for an underdeveloped, reactive brain. Our response to this normal behavior determines whether a negative cycle ensues or our relationship is strengthened.
Choosing love and learning over power and control in moments of chaos is hard work to be sure. This is the work of generational healing. It doesn't happen overnight or without effort, but it is the most important work we can do as parents.