I often hear aggravation from parents about their child’s “disrespect,” “rudeness,” or “cussing” when describing challenges at home. They retell stories of conflicts over technology, homework, or limits, and as their child becomes upset, the “unacceptable” behavior emerges. At the point when the interaction shifts from conversation to argument, parents often get heated and escalate to metering out consequences that may be unreasonable, extreme, or unrelated to the issue that started the conflict in the first place. The unfortunate outcome is that the original problem is not solved, and everyone is upset. Everyone is stuck with no strategy to change this cycle.
These stories all share several features. First, it is a dead-end cycle leaving all parties stuck without a path forward. Typically, the parent is trying to “teach” that this is “not allowed,” hoping that the punishment will come to mind when their child/teen is upset the next time. The fact is, when upset, nothing comes to mind except “winning,” as everyone is reactive at that moment and left to lick their wounds after the encounter.
Unfortunately, this sets in motion other options for the child to get what they want and avoid punishment by sneaking, lying, or hiding behaviors of which their parents would disapprove, and a new more troublesome pattern emerges. Beliefs set in that the child or teen is rude, and parents don’t understand or care. While harsh consequences are intended to teach, in reality, they don’t help the youth learn another way to manage. Instead, they can backfire and make things worse. This creates a stalemate and an unhappy cycle.
The notions of disrespect, rudeness, and cussing are about the feelings of the adult. The message is that, no matter what, a child/teen should regard authority above all else. While it makes sense that interacting with others is most effective when we are able to keep in mind who we are talking to, that is a high bar. It requires the youth to prioritize others over their needs or wants in the very moment when they experience their needs and wants being challenged. The great irony here is expecting a child or teen to be able to hold your perspective in mind while you are likely not holding theirs in mind. Even as adults, we can be challenged to express ourselves and keep in mind the needs, wants, or thoughts of others.
Attending to disrespect, rudeness, and cussing is a derailment. It misses the critical issue. It is often the unpleasant end to a conflict about what you or your child wants or needs in the moment. Whatever the issue that prompted the upset, there are many disappointments and challenges your child will face. Much like an infant who cries and fusses before having words to communicate needs, hostile or aggressive language is raw, unfiltered, and primitive in nature.
There are many things your child will have to deal with that they don’t enjoy. If each is addressed as a unique problem, you will find you are engaged in an unpleasant game of whack-a-mole. The bigger issue is to learn to manage their emotions. This shift in perspective opens the door to the larger developmental goal of helping your child or teen learn how to manage the intensity of their emotions. This comes from helping your child tolerate “no” and taking turns rather than using power, control, or fear.
While standards for behavior are important, the parenting question is how to help my child express sadness, fear, disappointment, or anger without becoming hostile. Focusing on how a child “should” behave or insisting that a teen “can’t talk to me that way” is frankly inaccurate. The truth is no matter what rules are set, expectations held, or punishments given, it is the child’s self-control that is the issue.
In the absence of guidance on how to express distressing emotions, the relationship can become adversarial or cut off decreasing the likelihood that the child or teen will listen to anything you have to offer. Instead, they may look for solutions on their own to avoid you and future conflicts by lying or sneaking. This, in turn, damages the relationship further, building mistrust and resentment with the unfortunate outcome of alienating the child or teen from the very people who are in their lives to teach and support them.
They key to moving out of this dilemma is to look at disrespect, rudeness, or cussing through a different lens. In the simplest of terms, your child or teen is not handling the challenges they are facing very well. While you may be committed to having this behavior change, it is important to recognize that you, as a parent actually don’t have ultimate control over what another human being, your child, is thinking, doing or feeling. Accepting this can leave you feeling powerless or helpless.
However, when you shift to understanding that your child is struggling with a challenge, your true power as a parent emerges. Rather than correcting behavior, you become oriented to promoting growth. Disrespectful behavior is evidence of your child or teen’s difficulties with regulating emotions. Helping your child grow more emotional regulation begins with you, as the parent, taking a step back and giving yourself a moment to breathe. This act, in itself, models the very skills you want your child or teen to have.
Stepping back is not losing, giving up or giving in. It is demonstrating self-control. Taking a moment to breathe can help you to regather your composure and remember your goal. Rather than escalating, it allows you to disengage and look at the bigger picture. After all, you are upset because you care.
When cooler heads prevail, you can hear and acknowledge that accepting limits or disappointment is hard for your child or teen. Knowing they can rely on you to listen and compassionately understand their struggle supports their sense of safety and connection. When your child or teen sees you understand their concern, there is little need for them to continue yelling. As the intensity of the interaction decreases, the door opens to the next step, which can include joining together in problem solving that honors both their concern and yours.
This reorientation to their upset supports growth of valuable skills, while building your relationship and your child or teen’s emotional development. When you remember that rudeness, cussing, and disrespect are symptoms, it becomes easier to take more effective steps to address the underlying challenge, your child’s ability to regulate their emotions, and it opens up the opportunity to build these important skills.