"Will you please empty the dishwasher?" I asked my 15-year-old son one afternoon after school. By the response I got, you would have thought I'd asked the boy to climb a mountain. A heavy sigh accompanied eye rolling just seconds before he let out a mouthful of sass. Oh, the joy of being a parent to a child with no shortage of attitude.
Sometimes teen attitudes are on full display, as I experienced with my dishwasher-emptying request. Other times, they are more subtle, but no less troubling. I'm convinced that a teen's heart issues are seen in attitude patterns, and when they take the form of disrespect or defiance, it's important for parents to address not only the behavior, which is seen, but also the heart issue.
With our own five kids, my husband, Mark, and I learned to stop addressing every little thing and to start looking for attitude patterns. Here is what we recommend when dealing with overt and covert disrespect:
Find the attitude pattern
Parents should start with their teen's behavior. Look for consistent behavior that stems from a single attitude pattern — such as arrogance, entitlement, blame, disrespect or apathy. Then resist the temptation to be distracted by the symptoms and go for the deeper issue. Once you've identified the root of your teen's behavior, you can deal with his attitude pattern, which stems from a heart issue.
Our son wanted a smartphone before he could afford one and asked us to loan him the money. His asking us for money was the symptom, while instant gratification and entitlement were the attitude pattern. So our response wasn't a conversation about a loan; it was a conversation about money in relation to the attitude pattern (instant gratification and entitlement).
Evaluate the emotion
A teen's disrespectful attitude is usually fueled by emotion, so it's helpful to ask yourself, What emotions are going on behind my teen's attitude?
Several years ago I found a one-page list of emotions online. I printed off multiple copies and used them with our teens. When they were short-tempered, disrespectful or even moody, we handed them the emotion list and a pen and asked them to circle what they were feeling. After we checked back a few minutes later to see what they had circled, we were usually able to start a dialogue about what was really going on.
Offer gentle correction
You've seen it: the look or the tone of voice that communicates disdain, or the body language that screams disrespect. A reminder wrapped in lighthearted communication may be all it takes to correct an attitude. I often told my teens, "You need to circle 'round the airport and land that plane again." It's a gentle way to say, "The way you spoke to me is not OK. You need to try that again."
Parenting requires time. Caring takes focus. Conversations require energy. In order to be appropriately responsive, parents need enough time, focus and energy to recognize and address the disrespect in their homes. Teens often express a false sense of freedom, thinking they no longer need their parents, and that can cause parents to withdraw their leadership. But these are the years that teens desperately need parents who affirm them when they get it right and hold them accountable when they don't.
When we discovered that one of our teens was taking an extended lunch hour at school (aka skipping class) but hadn't been caught, we called the principal and asked him to hold our son accountable. As the conversation came to a close, the principal said, "Most conversations I have with parents deal with them trying to get their kids out of trouble. I've never received a call asking to get their child in trouble. Thank you." Our son's rules-are-for-everyone-but-me actions had shown up in too many ways for us not to address his attitude pattern of arrogance head on.
It's easy to want to protect and rescue our kids from consequences, but that doesn't assist them in life. Helping them respond appropriately to authority and accept consequences is a gift we can give when their attitude patterns trip them up.
As we parent, we need to remember that our teens are quickly growing into the adults they will become. A disrespectful 15-year-old might easily become a rude 25-year-old whose job could be at risk if he doesn't know how to appropriately communicate with his supervisor. A know-it-all 16-year-old who isn't held accountable can turn into a know-it-all 36-year-old whose marriage crumbles because he can't ever tell his spouse he's sorry.
And our son who had an attitude about emptying the dishwasher? He's 18 now, and he's discovered that respect and taking care of a home are important even in a college dorm.
Jill Savage is the founder and CEO of Hearts at Home. She is the author of No More Perfect Kids and Got Teens?