When a parent tells me their child is disrespectful, there is a good chance that the child (and perhaps the parent) was in a state of mind I call “emotionally intoxicated.”
Here, the child, teen, or parent will say things they don’t mean (“I hate you... you don’t care about me… I want to run away...”), and it’s difficult to have a productive conversation. Instead it’s all too easy to get emotionally triggered yourself and say things you don’t mean, such as yelling, calling names, or attempting to cancel Christmas.
One of the most important things I tell parents is to “Teach when the relationship is good.” What this means is don’t go into “lecture mode” in the middle of a highly emotional moment, such as when your child is defensive or angry. This creates a situation where whenever a child makes a mistake, the talk or lecture afterward is associated with being punished, rather than learning something. Can we really afford for our children to form such an association? Is it really any wonder why they tune us out so quickly?
Situations that trigger emotional intoxication
In my clinical experience, children and teens are at their most disrespectful during three situations. If you’ve experienced any of these, there is a very good chance your child was emotionally intoxicated and incapable of responding appropriately. No matter how right you think you are, it is important not to argue or lecture during these triggering moments:
# 1: Your child just heard no.
Imagine your 15-year-old daughter wants to go to a party, yet she doesn’t ask you until the last minute. You rightly feel nervous and say “no,” but she argues with you that it’s not fair and is emotionally distraught. Let’s say you make the grave mistake of choosing to argue back and try to make her “feel good” about your decision. She can’t imagine why you’d deny her such an important social event, so of course her reaction is to turn her anger into hurtful words toward you.
When she says that you are “ruining her life,” do you stay there and try to make her “get it” by defending yourself? (“I know you’re disappointed, but don’t talk to me that way… I’m just doing what’s best for you…”). Heavens, no! It’s worthless to argue with anyone who’s emotionally intoxicated. Instead, say something like, “I’m sorry. I know you’re disappointed. We’ll talk later when we can discuss this differently…” and keep your feet moving. Don’t allow your pride or fear to pull you back into the room.
Remember, you can always go back later when the relationship is good and teach. But no teaching— no matter how well intended — takes place when emotions are running high.
#2: Your child is in trouble.
Imagine you find your 14-year-old son by himself smoking marijuana. You’ve caught him red (or pot) handed and he knows he’s in trouble. Because you are understandably upset, you may be tempted to discipline him and teach him a lesson. But with a kid who is likely embarrassed for being caught, the talk probably won’t end well. So, should you let your kid off the hook without consequences? Of course not.
If your child does something wrong, follow this formula: Try saying, “You did A (the misbehavior), so now you get B (the consequence). I’m too upset to talk to you right now. We will talk about it later when we are both calm.” Then walk away and implement a short-term, mild consequence. Don’t swat flies with cannon balls (e.g., “You’re grounded for 6 months.”).
Remember, don’t lecture in the heat of the moment. Lectures are actually relationship killers because they trigger shame, and shame makes kids defensive. And a defensive kid is a disrespectful kid. Be honest: Would you respond with a “good attitude” if your boss took every opportunity to point out how you messed up? No one likes to have their face rubbed in the mud.
#3: Your child has to do something he or she hates.
When a child is essentially forced to do something against their will, like homework, chores, or eating something they consider yucky, the child will become upset and may try to divert the conversation to “anything else that sticks.” For instance, if your son learns that instead of eating something yucky, he can engage you in a conversation about how you don’t love him... then you’ve set yourself up for at least ten future conversations about how you don’t love him whenever he is upset.
Instead, allow the consequence to teach by saying, “If you don’t eat at least some ______, then you’ve chosen the following consequence ______.” Then disengage and walk away. When possible, give the child some time to decide. If he decides not to do what you’ve asked, then follow through. Just don’t become emotionally intoxicated yourself.
Remember to accentuate the positive
Some of this may sound like I’m saying to just ignore your child. Absolutely not; I just believe timing is important. I sometimes tell parents to follow a 1-to-5 ratio, which means that for every one time you have to either ignore your child or implement a consequence, look for at least five opportunities to praise or express appreciation/interest. This means you can’t lecture until you’ve had at least five positive interactions. Sometimes (but not always) the most disrespectful children are the ones who get little attention for positive behavior; the parent only interacts with them when something is wrong. Pay attention to those good things too because they do happen.
A disrespectful child is really someone that is intoxicated by disappointment (#1), shame (#2), or frustration (#3). Our job is not to engage in proliferating that “intoxication.” Instead, engage when doing so is more productive. This will set a more positive emotional tone in the relationship and make your teaching much, much more effective.