It once was that children feared their parents; nowadays, it’s more likely to be the other way around. Parents are often afraid of their own kids. Modern parents frequently feel helpless with their children and all the more so with their bigger kids. While they try to set up rules, set limits and run a tight ship, they find that their kids ignore the rules, break the boundaries and do whatever they want. Their disregard for parental authority applies to both action and words. It is no longer uncommon for children ten years old and up (old enough to know better) to impulsively blurt out whatever they want to, however they want to. If they want to holler, they will. If they want to hurl insults, they will. They’ll swear, threaten, get physical and do whatever else they feel like doing when they are displeased, upset or outraged. Disgruntled teens talk back.
Naturally, if a parent responds negatively to a child’s request, the youngster will feel at least displeased, possibly upset and on occasion, outraged. Feelings happen. However, many young people don’t seem to know how to express negative feelings in a way that preserves their dignity, preserves the dignity of others and maintains healthy, loving relationships. Mouthy teenagers do not only harm their parents; they harm themselves as well. Out-of-control teens (adolescents who are not thinking of the long-term consequences of their words or actions) experience more daily pain than their in-control counterparts. When teenagers know how to express their upset with sensitivity to the feelings of others (in this case, parents), they will enjoy all the benefits that good communication skills bring: peace in the home, emotional well-being, emotional love and support, mental stability and even, improved physical health.
Insisting on Respect
Parents will actually do their kids the favor of a lifetime if they are willing to insist on respectful communication. Parents who let their adolescents talk back disrespectfully actually help these children build strong brain pathways for verbal abuse. When these young people get married, those pathways will be solid as rock. Consequently, when feelings of frustration, anger and disappointment are triggered by their new spouses, their abusive brain pathways will light up and BAM: out will spew rude and hurtful words that will burn a deep whole in the new relationship. Rude teenagers grow up to be rude spouses. Rude teens can even grow up to be rude parents! Maturity does not bring respect. Education and training does.
By insisting on respect, parents can help their children build strong brain pathways for self-control. While adrenalin is running, triggered by intense feelings of upset, the self-control pathways will light up. Although the young person may feel like slamming a door, screaming or ranting, he or she will quietly utter a statement instead. “I’m not happy about this” or “I want to talk with you about this again later” or “Is there any way you might reconsider?” or “Would it help if I did such & such?” and so on.
Let’s take an example. Suppose 13 year-old Suzy asks Mom if she can go to a party that 17 year-old Joey is making Saturday night. Mom feels that Suzy is too young for this kind of party and says, “I know you’d really like to go Sweetheart. Unfortunately, I feel Joey and his friends are too old for you. I don’t want you to go.”
Suzy is more than upset. She is hysterical. So she answers back: “I’M NOT LISTENING TO ANYTHING YOU SAY. I’M GOING AND THAT’S IT. THERE’S NO WAY YOU CAN STOP ME!”
Mom has two choices: either ignore the disrespect or address it. If Mom ignores the disrespect she has two choices: she can pretend nothing happened and simply respond to Suzy’s words (i.e. answering fairly calmly, “We’ll see about that.”) or she can actually join in the disrespect by shouting or insulting back (i.e. “TRY IT YOUNG LADY AND YOU’LL SEE WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU!). Either way, ignoring the disrespect ensures that more disrespect will be coming in the future. Ignoring allows the teen to build up the disrespect neural pathway in the brain. Failure to deal with disrespect is actually a form of parental neglect because when the child goes on to have trouble in other significant relationships, it will be due to the fact that no one ever taught her how to express displeasure sensitively. (In fact, if Mom actually screams back, she is actually modeling the dysfunctional communication strategy of yelling when upset).
So let’s hope that Mom decides to address the disrespect. If she does, she has two choices: either she can stop the conversation then and there and deal with the disrespect immediately, or she can wait until things are calmer later on and deal with the disrespect at that time. In this case, it is good to follow the concept of the “teaching moment” as described in the book Raising Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe. A true “teaching moment” is one in which both the parent and the child are calm and relaxed. Since the child in this example is currently hysterical, the period cannot be called a “teaching moment.” Mom decides to wait until later to teach her daughter how to express displeasure sensitively.
The Relationship Rule
If a child has been taught The Relationship Rule while very young, it is extremely unlikely that he or she will be rude to a parent in adolescence. Indeed, the younger the child is when self-control is taught, the less likely it is that the child will ever talk back, insult or otherwise hurt a parent’s feelings or diminish a parent’s stature. However, The Relationship Rule can certainly be taught to teenagers (or even spouses!). Some patience will be required, however, to allow time for new brain pathways to form and for this new mode of communication to become the fall-back position during moments of emotional stress.
The Relationship Rule can be put in two ways – the positive and the negative forms:
- I only give and I only accept respectful communication.
- I do not give, nor do I accept, disrespectful communication.
A parent teaches The Relationship Rule in 5 simple steps (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice for complete details). Step One involves teaching the actual rule by providing the rationale for the rule (especially for older children and teens) and by giving numerous examples, role-plays and re-enactments in order to see how this rule is applied under stressful conditions. After providing education and examples, the parent tests the teen. The parent asks, for instance, what is the wrong way for a son to respond to a parent who has refused to buy an MP3 player for him? What is the right way?
Step Five, the last step of the training program, employs negative consequences. Before this step, no punishments are used for disrespectful speech because all steps before this last one are designed to actually train the child’s brain to be respectful. The intervening steps allow the parent to be empathic and responsive to the child’s feelings. The last step is employed only to prevent regressing back to the old brain pattern.
Teaching The Relationship Rule means both teaching it through instruction and guidance, and also modeling it. Obviously parents themselves must have the self-control to continue to be sensitive to the feelings of others even when they themselves are intensely upset. Many parents will be challenged in this area since their own parents didn’t raise them with The Relationship Rule. However, the family that learns together, grows together. It’s fine for parents and kids to improve at the same time. All that is required is sincerity (i.e the parent acknowledges mistakes and actually reduces their frequency over time).
Sometimes, lack of education is not the only culprit in a teenager’s trouble with respect. There can be other issues such as undiagnosed mental health conditions and deeper emotional problems. If, after applying The Relationship Rule, improvement is not forthcoming, do arrange for a consultation for your family with a professional mental health provider.