Establishing Respectful Communication with Your Child

“You’re completely ridiculous, Dad—you don’t know anything”

“Why do you have to use the computer right now?! Let me use it!”

“You’re the reason I did so bad on that test, because you made me go to that dumb “event”!”

If you are a parent, the above quotes may feel uncomfortably familiar.  Of all the difficulties today’s parents face, the shockingly disrespectful way in which their children often address them may be the most challenging.   Children whom they love dearly disparage them in sarcastic or demeaning tones, or refuse to respond to simple directions. Parents may feel hurt and powerless, and if the behavior becomes a pattern, they might even grow resentful.


Despite their frustration, many parents do their best to avoid reacting in kind when kids are disrespectful, and instead try to respond with thoughtfulness and understanding.  Many try to ignore negative behaviors and empathize with their children’s feelings, or calmly tell their children how they feel hurt when spoken to harshly.  These approaches can sometimes de-escalate children’s behaviors, but they are not always sufficient.  In fact, compassionate and calm responses can sometimes result in increased defiance.  Getting “one up” on a parent can sometimes feel good, and even exhilarating, for a frustrated child.  Temporarily free of feelings of frustration or helplessness, they might feel a temporary charge of power, and escalate their defiance.

Stopping a pervasive pattern of disrespect often requires that adults firmly assert their authority and set clear standards. The following approaches have worked for many families I have worked with; every idea may not apply to each individual or family circumstance.  You may also find guidance in William Doherty’s book Take Back Your Kids (2000), or Robert Mackenzie’s Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child (2001).  I have split these ideas up into two categories for the sake of clarity: setting up a respectful atmosphere, and applying a policy of respect.

Setting Up a Respectful Atmosphere

1)      Make sure all caretakers are on the same page as to what constitutes respect and disrespect.  Come to an agreement about appropriate tone, posture, language, etcThis step is as important for separated/divorced families as for nuclear families.

2)      Model respectful communication.  Avoid name-calling, disparagement, excessive criticism/blame, discounting feelings (“don’t be so sensitive”), or trivializing of accomplishments (“that’s not such a big deal”).   Eschew sarcastic or aggressive tones of voice or belligerent posturing.

3)       Talk about others in a respectful manner when children are in earshot.  Avoid disparaging, labeling, or excessive blaming.  Speak particularly respectfully about people and institutions of authority, including schools, politicians, or houses of worship. Constructive opinions are fine, but avoid cynicism or gratuitous negativity.

4)      Monitor children’s use of media.  Try to limit their exposure to shows, songs, etc., that give messages of disrespect, defiance, or cynicism about authority.

5)      Stress cooperation and problem-solving when disciplining.  Offer choices as well as time to make them.  Provide consequences as tools for learning rather than as a means to “show who is boss” (see blog post on logical consequences).  Children tend to experience this approach as more respectful than an emphasis on compliance.

6)      Avoid over-indulgence.  Be sparing with privileges and material items, give chores, and stress that children have responsibilities to the family. Demonstrate respect for children’s abilities by avoiding doing things for them that they can do for themselves.


Applying a Policy of Respect


1)      Calmly discuss your new policy of respect with the children.  Offer specific examples of respect and disrespect.  Be clear that when children act rudely, you will not address their concerns until they communicate with more politeness.

2)      Clarify the particular respect that children need to give parents.  Emphasize that excessive questioning and non-compliance with basic parental directives is disrespectful.  Use analogies from children’s lives to make this point; you might remind them that team captains need to direct players, but that it is disrespectful for players to direct or continually question captains.   Offer examples as to when and how children may respectfully voice their thoughts and opinions.

3)      Attune yourself to instances of respect and disrespect in your children’s communication.  Become aware not only of overt disrespect such as cursing or yelling, but also of less obvious signs such as intemperate questions, sarcastic/mean tones, or belligerent postures.

4)      Point out instances of respect and disrespect when they occur.  You might cultivate a stern tone that gives children the message that you “mean business” when noting disrespect, but avoid sounding too threatening.  Be brief, avoid lectures, and resist the urge to argue back and forth or have the last word.

5)      Reserve the right to end conversations if children continue to act disrespectfully.  Resist “storming off” in a punitive manner; make clear that you will return after a period of time and address their concern if they express themselves respectfully.

6)      Periodically discuss your progress towards more respectful communication together as a family (see our blog post on conducting family meetings).


Implementing even a few of these suggestions can lead to decreased tension and improved family relationships.   Having effectively asserted their right to be treated with respect and set standards, parents are likely to feel more secure and confident, and also more positive and loving towards their children.  Because children will be communicating their feelings and needs more clearly and respectfully, parents will be in a better position to “tune in” to them, resulting in greater understanding, and a more secure and satisfactory parent-child connection.

–Posted by Jonah Green





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