I asked several parents of teens what might be a helpful topic for me to address and the overwhelming response was, how to handle disrespectful behavior. Teenagers can have sharp tongues and many parents are at a loss for how to stop the unkindness. While it may feel satisfying in the moment to lash back with an equally disrespectful retort or punishment, parents really need to do just the opposite.
In Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Dr. Laurence Steinberg explains that, due to changes in the brain around the time of puberty, “the limbic system becomes more easily aroused” and “teenagers become more emotional (experiencing higher “highs” and lower “lows”).” They have better self-regulation than younger children but not as much as adults, and their ability to self-regulate can have a “now you see it, now you don’t” quality to it. This is one reason why a once-compliant and happy child has turned into an emotional roller coaster. It’s easy for parents to jump on the ride, but if we can stand on the sidewalk instead, we will be more likely to help them develop the self-regulation necessary for navigating the world successfully as young adults.
According to Dr. Steinberg, research indicates that parents who raise children with higher levels of self-control are warm, firm, and consistent.
Being “warm” means parents are physically and verbally affectionate, and they respond to their child’s needs in an emotional moment. In response to negativity or put-downs, these parents might say something like, “You seem angry or upset. Can you tell me more about that?” Countering negativity with negativity only serves to elevate the teen’s emotional state, when we really need to help them calm down.
Being “firm” means setting and enforcing limits. Understanding that our children are having trouble regulating their emotions doesn’t mean we allow them to be verbally abusive. Kindly and firmly state, “I won’t allow you to speak disrespectfully to me. I’m going to get some work done. Let me know when you’re ready to use a respectful tone and I will be happy to talk with you.” Then follow through, repeating the message as necessary.
Being “consistent,” means having the same expectations for our children—and ourselves—every day. Dr. Steinberg says, “The single greatest parental contributor to poor self-control in children in inconsistent parenting. If your rules vary…or if you only enforce them intermittently, your child’s misbehavior is your fault, not his.” If we model a lack of self-control, our children will mirror us and they will be sure to point out that we’re not respectful, so why should they be?
Save roller coasters for amusement parks! We need to stay on the sidewalk and help our teens move one step at a time through the jumble of emotions they experience. Warm, firm, and consistent expectations and follow through will move us closer to the connected, loving relationship that we—and our kids—want from our family experience.
Eva Dwight is a parent, family and personal coach. For more information, go to www.creativecoachingconversations.com.