Today we’re going to talk about what to do when teens won’t show us respect and how to handle things when anger and other emotions are involved in our parenting situations.
You’re the Worst Parent in the World!
Has your teen or tween told you yet that you’re the worst parent in the world? Many times? Or are you lucky enough to say “not yet”? Well, don’t be surprised if that once adorable toddler or elementary child who doted on your every word turns into some sort of swamp monster and turns on you.
Sometimes they blow up over an issue that, from your point of view, is small –you didn’t buy the right flavor of yogurt, you showed up 2 minutes late picking them up from practice, you nagged them too many times about cleaning up their room or maybe that you wore the wrong color shirt. When they lash out at you like that, you just want to lash out at them, right? Tell them they don’t appreciate the million other things you’ve done for them recently! It’s not fair that you’re the target and they’re treating you like dirt! We feel they don’t show us any respect and we can’t get them to no matter what we do.
Respect is something we tell our kids is earned, not given. If you treat someone with respect then you’ll deserve respect is the old adage. Well, that works for normal people but we’re talking about a teenager or tween with only half a brain. What? Half a brain? Yep, half a brain.
There are two issues with our kids' brains that are going on when they are acting disrespectful.
The first is when kids move toward puberty their brains sluff off half their brain cells. Yep, half! That’s where my “half a brain” comment comes in. The brain has been collecting lots of information for the first 12 years or so of a child’s life and biologically they need to make room in their brains to create new neurological pathways that will take them into adulthood and beyond. So, during puberty the body sluffs off brain cells. Many of us have heard comments that the teenage brain doesn’t stop forming until the mid to late 20s. This is the science of what is behind that comment.
The next part of the brain to understand is something that affects us at all ages. It’s when emotion takes over our brains and activates our “fight-or-flight” response. If we’re angry, yelling, or crying a part of our brain called the amygdala takes over and gets all the blood flow, deactivating the part of the brain where decision making happens called our prefrontal cortex. If you have a teen this means that they can be hit with a double brain whammy at once – half a brain and fight-or-flight mode so you’d better watch out!
So, let’s get back to what we first started with in this podcast – lack of respect.
If your teen lashes out, not only is their fight and flight activated causing their thinking brain to shut down but now you know that they don’t have all that many brain cells in the first place. Does your house ever sound like this?
- “Why were you so late picking me up?! You are so thoughtless! You know I have to study for my test tomorrow.”
- “Dad, you never let me do anything fun with my friends! Leave me alone!”
- “Mom, you never understand anything I say! My friends are just fine, it’s YOU who aren’t treating me right!”
- “No! I don’t want to get off electronics now! I’m playing with my friends so shut up and get out of my room!”
The two most common reactions we as parents have to that bad attitude look something like this:
Reaction 1 – We try to remain calm and reason with them using our thinking brain.
- “Yes, I was late but things will be just fine.”
- “I do too let you do fun things all the time. What about the time I let you… (fill in the blanks…)”
- “We have a family rule about electronics and you signed a contract which you’re violating it right now. We need you to hold up your end of the contract.”
- The complication: we might have a thinking brain but our kids don’t. Hmm..
- “I do too treat you right! You just sit there on your lazy butt and don’t help out around the house at all. Why should I let you play computer all day and night! You have to help out around the house or I’m going to never let you play on the computer again!”
- “You are always talking back to me! Go to your room but hand over that cell phone first. It’s going away for a week!”
- “You have to do it my way because I said so and I’m the parent!”
- The complication here: yep, neither party of has a thinking brain! Uh oh! A huge problem!
Try some of these phrases in a really soft and loving voice:
- “Mom you are so stupid.” Gets a response of “I know….” In a really calm voice.
- “Dad, why are you always picking on me?!” gets a response of “That’s soooo sad…”
- Some parents might get flack for saying those things so they might even need to just grunt or use “hmmm” as their reaction to disrespect.
- If you’re really good at staying calm during all of this you might even get: “Why do you keep saying that!” Don’t take the bait and try to defend yourself, just take it.
- Feel free to say something like: “I talk to kids who are calm. We’ll talk later.” And then leave the room.
Now, once your teen has calmed down you need to find an opportunity to talk. Sometimes you can just cuddle up to them when they’re on the couch or at bedtime while other times you need to create a situation where you and your teen have what I call “Special Time” that’s away from other family members and distractions; maybe a walk, a hike or a drive in the car. For some of you who are worried that your teen might blow up on you when you start having a discussion, I’d even recommend going to a sit-down restaurant since most of us behave better in public places. Whatever you need to do, you need to follow up so that the disrespect doesn’t linger and become a normal state of affairs in your home.
Keep in mind that when you get this special time, you want to talk and not lecture. You are going to use love and empathy to communicate your unconditional love to your child. They need to know that even when they are hurting and at their worst that you still love them and want to help them. Using phrases like:
- “I could tell you were really upset. Can we talk about it?” will help. Then have a discussion and see if you can brainstorm how to avoid such outbursts in the future.
- As part of this discussion you want to make sure you tell them: “It really hurt my feelings when you called me bad names. You know how much I love you and in our family we treat each other with respect.”
- Then you get to allow your child to make up the feeling of ill-will they created by coming up with some sort of way for them to pay you back, creating positive energy in your home again.
- “It’ll really help if you make dinner tomorrow night with me to help put some positive energy into our relationship again.”
- Or, you might ask them to do a special project around the house or even have them do a special cleaning of their room.
- They need to know that their behavior of treating you badly has a loving consequence. If you want, you can even give them a few choices to make it easier for them to restore your relationship to a more healthy state.
You need to be sure that when they apologize that there still will be a consequence to restore your relationship. If you are loving and calm the teen will understand and they will most likely willingly do whatever task you agree on. A simple “I’m sorry” from them is just a bit too short and too easy.
Some of you might say that your teen won’t take the time or effort to restore the relationship. If that’s the case then there’s more going on and you should reach out to me for further coaching or get some other counselor involved, things usually don’t get better on their own.
I have one last thought especially for those of you who have younger kids. This emotional behavior where the fight-and-flight response is activated happens at all ages so feel free to experiment on your 2-year old or 8-year old. With them, when they have a tantrum or blow up, you wait until the emotion passes just like with teens . It’s usually a lot easier with younger kids and their recovery time can be as short as a few minutes.
The encouragement I want to give you is that it’s really effective to practice these skills when they’re young so that when they get into their teen years you can more easily pull off waiting during emotional and disrespectful outbursts until their thinking brain returns.
I hope you enjoyed hearing some ideas about how to bring respect back into balance in your household and how knowing a bit about brain science can help you create healthier and happier family relationships.