4 Tips for Dealing with Disrespectful Teens

You mean when I said, “Don’t look at me, that was disrespectful?” she asked. I sat across from a sixth grader who was in trouble, again, for disrespectful and insubordinate behavior. In talking with her, I realized she really did not know her direct, blunt, how-dare-you attitude was disrespectful.

I modeled for her responses what were more appropriate between a student and an adult. I told her how adults receive disrespectful words and how learning respect in an important life skill. As I saw genuine responses on her face, I realized she didn’t really know what she was doing was wrong.

This isn’t a rare scene as a public school professional in the United States. I followed up this scene with the student’s teacher, helping the teacher understand how a child could really not know what disrespectful behavior was. I had to educate the teacher on family systems, dynamics of families different than her own, and how to teach this student appropriate responses so she can make better choices. How do you deal with disrespectful children, whether in a classroom or in your own home? How do you response to appalling behavior coming directly at you?

  • Model appropriate words for the child.  Teens and preteens are still learning appropriate behavior and much of what they are learning comes from social media, technology, and peers.  
  • Give emotionally neutral responses.   Saying, “That is not an appropriate response” is neutral to a child because it sets boundaries around the action without it becoming personal.  ”You’re so disrespectful” becomes personal to a child and may cause that child to enter into a power struggle.  Stay with firm words like “not acceptable” or “inappropriate” or “unhealthy”  which define the behavior but don’t attack the child.
  • Give opportunities for the child to change behavior before giving them an ultimatum.  Asking a child if they really want to respond in disrespectful way or giving them a warning and allowing them to rephrase their words more appropriately gives them a chance to make a better decision and teaches positive decision-making skills.
  • Don’t enter into a power-struggle.  Teens and preteens will argue just for the sake of arguing. They also may not see your valid point of view.  Don’t push them in a corner, because they will fight back.  Teaching them healthy ways to respond helps them in the long run.

There isn’t a text-book answer for dealing with rebellion and disrespect, but as you study your child or student and think through dialogues that transpire between both of you, reflect on how you can respond even when their responses are out-of-line.  Giving them options and modeling different, more acceptable options provides learning tools they can build on.  Because sometimes, they really don’t know.



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