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Teen Is Disrespectful but Wants Respect

As parents, how should we deal with a dismissive and smart-alecky adolescent? Our son says that we don't treat him with respect, but from my perspective the shoe is actually on the other foot – his behavior towards us is extremely disrespectful. What can we do to resolve this conflict?

The first step to resolving this impasse is to get together and define your terms. What does “respect” mean to you? What does it mean to your teenager? If you can find a time to sit down and discuss this question rationally – preferably when the air is clear and everyone is in a fairly good mood – you will have already begun the process of establishing healthier communication and a more positive parent-child relationship.

Respect doesn’t mean giving your son his own way. Nor does it imply that he has to see everything from your point of view or do everything according to your specifications. To respect someone is not necessarily to agree with him or trust him automatically.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, respect is “a courteous consideration of another person.” To put it another way, respect is something separate from decisions, rules, or actions. It’s how you treat the other person while making your decisions, enforcing your rules, and sticking to your guns.

Many teens fall into the trap of thinking that if you don’t agree with them or do what they want, you’re not “respecting” them. Not true. Unfortunately, parents can sometimes fall into the same trap. The fact of the matter is that you can be respectful toward your son while grounding him or depriving him of some privilege – provided the punishment is warranted. By the same token, he can voice disagreement with you while still demonstrating “courteous consideration.”

As the adult, you should be the first to show respect by making reasonable rules and enforcing them fairly and consistently. Be as clear as you can about your expectations and don’t try to “micro-manage” your adolescent. In the process, point out exactly how you are demonstrating “courteous consideration” (whether he wants to hear it or not). Don’t yell, manipulate, name-call, attack his character, get physical, “Bible-thump,” or threaten. If you can discipline and hold yourself to these standards, he will have no reason to accuse you of being “disrespectful.”

But what about his “dismissive” and “smart-alecky” behavior? How to you handle that? The key is to address the issue at hand and the disrespectful attitude while keeping the two separate. Help him to understand this distinction by asking questions like, “How might you disagree with me and still show respect?” or “How can you be angry at your mother and still treat her respectfully?” or “What would it look like if I respected you and yet disagreed with you?”

It’s crucial to give your teen permission to disagree with you. You can’t expect an adolescent to follow the rules and agree with them. He has to accept your decisions, of course, but you aren’t in a position to control his mind or dictate his feelings. It’s enough to focus on his compliance and the respect he needs to show you and other members of the family. Beyond that, he’s entitled to “like” or “dislike” his circumstances as he sees fit. As adults, we do many things we don’t really “like” to do. This is a good lesson for teens to learn if they want to function in the real world.

Bottom line: respect isn’t something that can be demanded. It has to be earned, and for the most part we earn it by giving it to others. For the time being, you may need to deal with the disappointment, hurt, and/or embarrassment of living with a disrespectful teenager. You may have to come to terms with being “disliked” even when you’re convinced that you’re doing the right thing. To a certain extent, it just goes with the territory.

Instead of striking back, try to sort out your emotions prayerfully with your spouse, a friend, a pastor or a professional counselor. Call us. Our Counseling staff can provide you with referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your local area. They’d also be pleased to discuss your situation with you over the phone.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Love and Respect in the Family

Losing Control & Liking It: How to Set Your Teen (and Yourself) Free

Boundaries With Teens

Why Christian Kids Rebel

Feeding the Mouth That Bites You

Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens

Parents of Teens (resource list)

Parenting the Heart of Your Teen (broadcast)

Parenting Teens Toward Adulthood (broadcast)

Other resources for Parenting Teens

Teen Parenting Channel

Tips for Communicating With Teens

Parenting Teens

Handling Disrespect

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