This is the second article in a five-part series on communicating with teens.
Read part one here: Tips for communicating with teens: Your responsibility to communicate well 
Read part three here: Tips for communicating with teens: Helping your teen think clearly
Read part four here: Tips for communicating with teens: Handling conflict
Read part five here: Tips for communicating with teens: Teaching teens how to think, not what to think

Section 5: The importance of respect in communication

There are two types of respect: positional and earned.

Positional respect

Positional respect, as you might expect, comes from status or rank – such as being a parent, teacher, police officer, judge or military superior. Even more importantly, however, positional respect comes from simply being human. “Value isn’t determined by our ethnicity, race or gender; nor by our age, ability or location,” writes Carrie Gordon Earll. Instead,

  • “It’s our divine membership in the human family that sets each of us apart as sacred. Men, women, and children (including preborn children in the womb) should be respected, regardless of their mental capacity, physical ability or social position. Some people may not exhibit attributes of God or behave in ways that recognize their own value yet their intrinsic worth remains.”

Earned respect

Earned respect is just that: respect you earn by the way you live your life, go about your daily work, and interact with others.

Even with positional respect, we should work to earn respect

Parents might assume that because they have positional respect as an authority figure, they don’t need to earn their child’s respect. And (whether they recognize it or not), teens might think that because they have positional respect as a child who’s loved unconditionally, they don’t need to earn their parents’ respect.

Both assumptions are wrong.

“Children, including teenagers, should treat their parents with respect (Ephesians 6:2),” writes pastor John Piper. “But it cuts both ways. ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger’ (Ephesians 6:4). Of course children can get angry for no good reason. But the point is: Don’t give them a good reason.”

Parents need to know “how to raise children [who] have a humble respect for God-given authority, whether in parents or husbands or teachers or policemen or pastors or civic laws,” says Piper. “But at the same time, also see that God’s pattern of leadership is servant leadership.”

Modeling humility starts with mom and dad

Jesus taught this lesson to his disciples time and again: “If anyone would be first, he must be the last of all and servant of all.” Author Pat Williams explains:

  • “There’s no such thing as an arrogant servant; a servant is humble by definition. If kids learn to see themselves as servants of God and others, they will more naturally develop an attitude of humility.

    “[We also have to realize that] children can’t demonstrate humility if they can’t admit to being wrong – the ability to own mistakes is a key component of integrity. One way to encourage kids to admit mistakes is by showing mercy when they confess their sins and errors. Confession makes life easier than a cover-up or a lie. Kids who feel they can safely approach their parents with the truth are less likely to be dishonest and defensive.

    “We model this behaviour by being able to admit our own errors. Some parents feel the need to keep up a front of perfection, as if admitting mistakes would diminish them in their children’s eyes. In reality, when we say to our kids, ‘I was wrong; please forgive me,’ their respect for us increases.”

Modelling forgiveness starts with parents, too

Modelling forgiveness can be a tough pill to swallow as parents because we feel we are owed positional respect; we’re “in charge.” But humility comes from “realizing that we are not above our teenagers,” says author Jerusha Clark. “They hurt us, but we hurt them, too.” That’s why it’s so important that we do learn to apologize sincerely because our teens are watching. In fact, our teens mirror us, points out Clark:

  • “We all have mirror neurons in our brains. And scientists are discovering that people learn by watching others almost more effectively than any other kind of learning because what you do and say – even your facial expressions – are mirrored in the brains of the people around you. So that’s why when you see someone smile, it’s hard not to smile.

    “We don’t control when our mirror neurons fire. They naturally occur as we observe someone performing an act, saying something, or doing a certain behaviour. So when we are humble, when we lay aside our pride, when we lay aside our need to be right and we apologize sincerely, that is mirrored in our teenager.

    “Now, that doesn’t guarantee that they will then apologize back. But it mirrors humility inside of them. When I model asking for forgiveness from my kids, I’m actually engaging a part of their brain they don’t even have control over.

    “The last thing I may want to do is apologize, especially to someone who I feel was at fault. My pride gets in the way – my own ability to assess the situation. But I go in and apologize once again because I can’t control what they do; I can control what I do.”(Edited for clarity.)

The impact of respect on communication

For young kids and teens, “distraction is a major obstacle” to listening, writes Dr. Danny Huerta. “But inconsistent or unclear boundaries, and a lack of respect, are also contributors.”

  • “Respect for your word can hinge on how well you respect your child’s words. When your kids are speaking to you, do you stop and listen? If you routinely tune them out while you’re on the phone, they might not feel valued, heard and understood. So create a culture of mutual respect for each other’s communication. Model respect, grace and forgiveness.”

    “Your role as a parent is to show respect by seeing your children through God’s eyes –  through that mercy, that steadfast love. And [there’s a higher likelihood that] we will gain respect if we’re giving it.

    “It comes down to gentleness. Ephesians 4:1-2 says to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.’

    “Respect, a lot of times, is about listening to somebody else, being present with them with what the true need is. Because kids’ behaviours are telling us something. Their emotions are telling us something. And many times we’re reacting to those emotions rather than really stopping and being present with what’s needed the most.” (Edited for clarity.)

Parents might think they must immediately reprimand disrespect. But Dr. Karyn Purvis proposed a different response during our broadcast "Connecting With Your Child." She suggests stepping back and saying calmly, “No, you’re disrespecting me, but I’m going to give you a chance to say that differently.”

Don’t worry that you’ll be seen as caving in – or capitulating power to your teen. Instead, you’re sharing power. “When you share power,” says Purvis, “you prove it’s yours. You can’t share something you don’t own.” 

Teach kids what respect looks like and sounds like

Mom and author Karen Ehman tells her kids that she expects them “to use the same calm, respectful tone with everyone they encounter, not just with their parents or with those in authority. Everyone – even that combative classmate who never seems to speak respectfully to them.”

  • “Recognize the value of modelling soft responses to children. There are many things I need to teach my children about the basic tasks and responsibilities of life. Making beds. Doing laundry. Remembering to put their shoes away. But when teaching them these things, do I do it with a soft tone, or do I just open my mouth, spewing out impatience?”

    “Remind your kids to keep their words gentle, respectful and brief. Sticking to just a few comments in a difficult conversation increases the chances that our listeners will be responsive to what we say.”

Section 6: How to communicate love to your teen

You’ve probably heard the saying that most kids spell love as T.I.M.E. And that’s largely true; healthy parents make time for and with their children. However, those efforts aren’t enough, says Dr. Gary Chapman.

  • “We have to be more than sincere. We have to learn how to communicate love so that your teenager, that specific teenager, feels loved. Because one size does not fit all.”

Speaking your teen’s love language can include words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, giving gifts and physical touch.

Become a student of your teen

Becoming a student of your teen – learning their love language and what makes them tick – is important because at that age, “intimacy and good conversations are usually on their terms,” says Dr. Kara Powell.

  • “It’s not so much when I want to have a good conversation. It’s when they want to have a good conversation, which means I, as a parent, have to be ready to drop everything. [It’s important], when my child brings up something or seems just a little bit open, to really prioritize the conversation then.”

Relationships and communication are strengthened when your teen can trust that you’ll be present when they need you. And that’s especially important as your child matures and learns how to process big emotions. A parent’s job is to resonate with their child, guide them and mentor them, says Dr. Karyn Purvis. And she explains the importance of this connection as you talk with your teen:

  • “Sometimes feelings feel so big that they feel like they’re gonna swallow us up. But you know, we can talk about it together. We can grieve about it together. Take a walk together down to the corner ice cream store and we just talk, or we can just walk together. It’s called ‘being felt.’ I know you’re gettin’ me. You don’t have to say a word. I know you get me.”

However, don’t become complacent in a false sense of security. Youth expert Jonathan McKee points out, “If we think for one minute that we are going to know everything about our kids, we’re fooling ourselves.”

  • “We’re not going to be aware of everything. But if we as parents take the time to notice – and especially look for opportunities to connect with them – we can learn so much.

    “One example is the old carpool – taking our kids back from soccer practice, from school, wherever. As a parent, this is a great time for us to just listen. I mean I’ve got my German shepherd ears up just totally paying attention, because if you just be quiet and don’t say a word and listen, you can learn so much about your kids when they are in the back of the car – like where the best fries are. ‘Oh, the best are the onion rings at Buffalo Wild Wings.’

    “Well, if your kid is saying that he loves onion rings at Buffalo Wild Wings and you’re having trouble connecting with your kid, think of what an in that is some night when he’s sitting there doing homework. ‘Hey, you tired of homework? Let’s go grab some onion rings at Buffalo Wild Wings.’ ” (Edited for clarity.)

Along with learning how your teen feels loved, it’s also helpful to understand how teens think in general.

Next up: Part Three Tips for communicating with teens: Helping your teen think clearly

© 2023 Focus on the Family. Used with permission.

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