Creating Connection with a Disrespectful Child
Even on the best days, raising humans can feel exhausting. Raising a child with disrespectful behavior can leave a parent feeling completely drained and powerless. Parents are often left wondering how best to respond. Discovering ways to connect with your defiant or disrespectful child creates a smoother path towards a healthier parent-child relationship.
Here are five tips for creating connection when the relationship becomes strained:
If you are a parent who has always had a close relationship with your child, it is difficult not to take disrespect personally. Be mindful that your mood influences your child’s mood and a harsh tone can escalate their poor behavior. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are linked. When parenting a chronically defiant child, it’s not unusual to experience self-critical thoughts that revolve around feelings of parental failure and inadequacy. Those thoughts can quickly spiral into difficult emotions that can lead to explosive interactions between you and your child—or even you and another family member.
During such times, remind yourself you are not alone and that children (especially teens) test the patience of even the best-intentioned parent. Remember, parenting is a messy adventure. When feeling overextended, give yourself permission to walk away, pause, and take three deep breaths. If needed, request assistance from another adult in your household. Or call up a friend or another parent to share (okay, vent). Sharing your frustrations and talking through your feelings can help to relieve tension and help you to feel less alone.
Understand the developmental stage
The stages that many parents seem to experience the most disrespect are the toddler and adolescent stages. This makes sense as both stages are marked by a period of self-discovery, seeking independence—and yes, moodiness and tantrums. Emotional outbursts are a normal part of healthy child development. In both stages, the brain is rapidly changing, which makes managing big emotions hard and requires skills your child may not have developed yet. Think of this time not so much as a battle against you or your rules, but more so a time rich with curiosity, exploration, and yes, challenge. Your kid or teen is expanding his or her view of the world around them and how to interact with it. At this stage, they require the freedom to explore. While safety is always a priority, be cautious not to push too hard against this process.
Remain engaged, but with boundaries
There are some things that as parents we can control and many things we cannot—such as our children’s emotions. When intense emotions are aggressively directed towards us, as parents it’s tempting to disengage. Stay engaged and try not to take outbursts personally.
But that does not mean you should tolerate disrespect. Ideally and early on, be sure to clarify expectations for behavior. Ensure that your child has a clear understanding of what line is not to be crossed. Keep in mind that it’s essential to maintain boundaries while also maintaining connection.
These are things that can help in the moment:
- Try not to reinforce problematic behavior by giving in to whatever it is he or she is asking for, as this can inadvertently increase the behavior.
- In the midst of a heated conflict, try to avoid lengthy discussions or back-and-forth exchanges. As sound as your argument likely is, your child cannot hear you—that logical, rational part of their brain is off-line.
- Pick and choose your battles (and timing). Walk away when things begin to escalate and resume the conversation once cooler heads have prevailed.
- Make it clear that you intend to address the issue at a later time. And when you do, begin with, “I am not okay with how things ended earlier. I love you, but I won’t tolerate disrespect.” You may be surprised to receive an apology before you utter the first word.
Remember—the key with any parent-child interaction is to maintain influence rather than control.
Understand the need underneath the behavior and reduce potential triggers
Behavior is language. For a child, behavior communicates wants and needs that are too big or too raw to be expressed in just the right way. What your child or teen says may not accurately reflect what they feel . . . or what they need. Every behavior is meant to meet a specific need, typically: attention, escape, avoidance of a task, or access to something.
Be mindful of your child’s triggers. Common triggers of problem behavior include:
- Unclear expectations
- Transitions without warnings
- Inconsistent or disproportionate consequences
- Being asked to do a task they are not skilled in completing
- Feeling disconnected from you or their peers
Learning the needs your child’s behavior is covering up as well as the triggers for the problematic behavior helps to decrease disrespectful behavior and teaches your child how to have their needs met in more appropriate ways. Remember, the need they are attempting to meet is always valid even if their attempt to meet that need feels disrespectful.
Consistently affirm the positive
A big way to create connection with your child is to engage in behavioral management strategies that reinforce behaviors you do want rather than those you don’t want. Reward your child when you observe positive behavior, and affirm him or her—just because. Affirm your child for who he or she is even if the behavior they are exhibiting is less than praiseworthy. Choose to focus on the positives and highlight their strengths as much as possible. Carve out ten minutes each day with your child to engage in a focused, uninterrupted activity chosen by your child. That time together creates a meaningful bond and allows you to see your child through a different, less strained, lens. Keep a steady, loving presence and remind yourself that even when they are pushing you away, your child needs (and seeks) your consistent love and approval. Give your child permission to get it wrong sometimes, knowing that is how they learn best—under your loving presence and guidance.