Instilling a Sense of Respect in Teenagers

How can I get my adolescent son to see that it's important to show appropriate regard for other people? He has developed what I consider a "smart-alecky" or "mouthy" way of responding to other members of the family. Last night, when I asked him to take out the trash, he said, "I'll do it later, Mom." That kind of disrespectful attitude really bothers me. Any ideas for confronting and changing this behavior? Should we address this issue in our house rules?

Yes, you should. It’s important to have rules regarding respect because in the final analysis respect is all about safety emotional and mental safety. When people treat one another disrespectfully, relational chaos ensues. This type of chaos is particularly destructive to the family. It erodes the bonds of love and trust which make up the very foundation of the home.

Your first assignment is to define “respect” and “disrespect.” You have to know clearly what they are before you try to promote the one and discourage the other by means of rules. Some parents seem to define “disrespect” as “anything my teen is doing that I don’t want him to do.” In other words, they try to turn the issue of respect into grounds for seizing total control of their teenager’s attitudes and behavior. This is a mistake you want to avoid if at all possible.

We mention this because we’re not entirely sure that it would be fair to describe your son’s reaction to your request (you did say that you “asked” him to take out the trash) as “disrespect.” He may have had reasons of his own for putting off his chores until later in the evening. As long as he takes care of his responsibilities within a reasonable time-frame, there’s no need to raise the stress level by demanding immediate obedience. Nor is it necessarily “disrespectful” for a teen to disagree with his parents or express anger in an appropriate way.

Here’s an exercise you may find helpful. Take out a piece of paper and write clear definitions of respect and disrespect. For starters, note that disrespect is:

  • Physical violence, or threats of physical violence.
  • Physical posturing or bullying.
  • Destruction of other people’s property, or threats of destruction.
  • Cursing at someone.
  • Name-calling.
  • Condemnations (“I hate you!”).
  • Mockery, insults, or belittling.
  • Blatant defiance.
  • Once you’ve finalized your lists, open up the dictionary. Compare its definitions with yours. When you do, you’ll probably discover that disrespect can be both an action and an attitude.

Here’s the point: if you’re going to make rules, remember that they are only effective in addressing disrespectful actions. Rules function primarily to keep safety in and chaos out. They cannot completely control another person’s behavior. They certainly can’t change his thought processes. For this reason, it’s far better to counter disrespectful attitudes with advice, teaching, mentoring, and modeling. Both approaches are important in parenting teens. You need to develop your skills in both areas if you want to maintain a respectful and orderly atmosphere in your home.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss these ideas and suggestions at greater length with a member of the Focus team, our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone. They can also provide you with a list of referrals to trained therapists practicing in your area. You can contact our Counseling department for a free consultation.


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