Question: Our teen says that we don't treat him with respect, but from my perspective the shoe is actually on the other foot – his behaviour towards us is extremely dismissive, immodest and smart-alecky. How do we 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.

Understanding respect

Respect does not 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."

Mutual respect

As the adult, you should be the first to extend respect by making reasonable rules and enforcing them fairly and consistently. Be as clear as you can about articulating 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 yourself to moderate your speech according to these standards, he will have no reason to accuse you of being "disrespectful."

But what about his "dismissive" and "smart-alecky" behaviour? How to you handle that? The key is to address the issue at hand and the disrespectful attitude while keeping the two separate. Lay this distinction out on the table 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?"

Allowing for independent thought

It’s crucial to give your teen permission to dislike or 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 demonstrate toward 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 counsellor.

© 2010 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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