Here’s what you need to know about your child’s disrespectful behaviour

When your child acts disrespectful, how do you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Helpless? Read on to find out about why a child displays disrespectful behaviour and what can you do as a parent.

By Arundhati Swamy

Here’s what you need to know about your child’s disrespectful behaviour

Travelling by train on a 6-hour journey, I notice a young boy, accompanied by his parents, sitting nearby. Throughout the journey, he remains glued to various gadgets — an iPad, a mobile phone and his parents’ phones. His parents make feeble attempts to divert his attention to the scenery outside, give him a book to read, but to no avail. They try harder. The boy erupts with a “Shut up” to his parents. A heavy silence follows. I glance at the parents’ blank faces. I wonder how they are feeling — hurt, angry, embarrassed, helpless?

Whether it’s in the privacy of your home or in a public place, a child’s disrespectful behaviour is indeed distressing. In a public place, it might be all the more difficult to deal with it as you struggle to mask your embarrassment and suppress your anger.

What is Respect?

From the early civilisations, respect has been considered one of the most valued behaviours in society as it helps maintain good social relationships. Respect is about how we value people. It leads us to hold a person in high esteem. We behave with thoughtfulness, politeness and courtesy because we are mindful of the other’s thoughts and feelings. In her book titled Respect: An Exploration, author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls respect “the single most powerful ingredient in nourishing relationships and creating a just society.” Thus, teaching your child about respect plays an important part in how she learns to build relationships.

What is Disrespect?
Disrespect is rude, impolite, insulting, hurtful and offensive behaviour towards a person. Disrespectful behaviour shows that we don’t care about a person’s thoughts, feelings or opinions. Disrespect is, therefore, negative and unwelcome.
Social norms and expectations play an important part in how we define and express respect.

Why does a child resort to disrespectful behaviour?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Frustration
    When Anita’s son went back to school after the summer vacation, she noticed a change in his behaviour when she reminded him of study time. He would argue endlessly or slam his books down on the study table.
    As your child grows he encounters new situations such as increased school work that make him feel frustrated and upset. Unless you teach him how to talk about those difficult emotions and to trust you to understand and help him, he is going to act out.
  • An unmet need
    Mira’s teen daughter Nikki is excited about an invitation to a sleepover at her friend’s place over the weekend. However, her parents have also planned a short family trip the same weekend. Nikki loses it when she learns that she can’t go for the sleepover. She breaks into a tirade about how unfair and hateful her parents are and how they never allow her to have a good time.
    Your teen is going through many physical, emotional and cognitive changes. She is seeking new experiences, wants to decide for herself and enjoy a little independence. She is likely to stand her ground, question you when you say “No” to her request and push as far as she can to make you change your mind. She overreacts to anything that interferes with her needs.
  • Parents believe in false praise
    After every game of cricket that Sheela’s fifth grader plays with his friends, he lies to his mother that he has scored the highest number of runs. Happy that her son enjoys playing outdoors, she says to him, “You are the best player. You will always be the best.”
    False praise gives your child a false sense of achievement and entitlement. And he also learns to believe that his smartness gives him the right and authority to be disrespectful — to question you rudely, speak harshly or defy you when he wants to have his own way.
  • Disrespectful behaviour is ignored
    Payal is a typical 4-year-old who loves to show off her growing vocabulary. She is still learning when and how to use words appropriately. Payal also loves to draw and colour. She names the figures in one of her drawings ‘Stupid Daddy’ and ‘Bumpy Mummy’. Her parents are thoroughly amused and have a good laugh over the drawing.
    A young child does not know that some of her spontaneous actions are actually rude and hurtful. With immediate correction and explanation, she can be made to understand why her action is wrong. It’s so easy for parents to ignore or get carried away with a child’s “entertaining” behaviour. In both cases, your child gets the message that it’s okay to be rude and make fun of people.
  • Parents make excuses for child
    Vimal’s parents have been summoned by the school to meet the Principal. In the presence of Vimal, his parents and the Grade 10 class teacher, the Principal describes the kinds of misbehaviour the teen has repeatedly been indulging in. Both parents begin to question the teacher, fire questions at her and ask why their child has been singled out.
    Over-indulgent parents rarely see situations involving their child with objectivity. They rush in to defend and protect their child from being disciplined. This, together with the parents’ own disrespectful behaviour towards the school staff, misleads the child. He believes that he can use disrespect to get himself out of difficult situations.
  • Parents model disrespectful behaviour
    Anand is pacing up and down the house as he waits for his driver to arrive and take him to the office. As soon as the driver comes in, Anand begins to yell and mock at him for being late. His children look at each other and begin to snigger at the driver.
    Home is where the strong foundations of a value system are laid. Children pick up their first lessons in showing respect by observing how their parents treat other people, especially those who work for them. Parents who treat others with respect influence their child to do the same.
  • Emotional upheavals of teenage
    Anupama rings the doorbell continuously as she waits for the door to be opened. “Why do you have to take so long,” she snaps, when her mother opens the door. Her mother retorts, “What is wrong with you? Can’t you be more patient? And don’t you talk to me like that!” Anupama rushes to her room, dumping her bag along the way, sulking and almost in tears. She has had a bad day at school. Her mother, who doesn’t know that, withdraws, hurt and angry.
    Most often, there is no malice behind your teen’s disrespectful behaviour towards you. Its reason could lie elsewhere — such as, the desire for new experiences. She could suddenly announce her decision to get herself a tattoo or have an eyebrow pierced. You just happen to be a convenient dartboard for your teen’s emotions or a testing ground for her newfound drive for freedom and self-discovery. This is a necessary but inconvenient phase and it will pass.

Young children first learn about respect and disrespect by observing how parents react to their behaviour. They are quick to make connections between their behaviour, the parent’s emotions and negative consequences. That’s how they gradually understand that disrespectful behaviour is not appreciated. And so, the onus is on you as parents to consciously teach your children about respect in helpful and engaging ways.
A young child’s immature cognitive skills make it difficult for him to understand abstract words such as respect and disrespect. However, he does understand when it is explained to him in concrete ways — as when you teach him to say please, thank you and sorry, greet people, keep his toys safe or ask before taking. Teaching a child to behave in small respectful ways helps him build a range of acceptable behaviours that elicit pleasant feelings and responses. But for you as parents, there’s a catch! Your child will expect you to be respectful in return and will react to being disrespected.

Four-year-old Mini was angry when she noticed her mother wearing her colourful hair ties. In an instant, she turned into a little monster. Raising her voice, she angrily told her mother, “These are mine. You can’t take them.” Her shocked and enraged mother pulled the ties off her hair and flung them down on the ground. Both mother and child had behaved disrespectfully towards each other. Later on, it occurred to the mother that Mini could have been upset because she had taken her belongings without asking. To test this out, her mom asked Mini a few days later, “Can I use your coloured hair ties today?” She was more than surprised to see Mini break into a big smile and say, “Yes you can take them.” Lesson learnt!

Children can be disrespectful in subtle, mild ways or in more in-your-face, serious ways.
Subtle/mild forms of disrespectful behaviour

  • Giving a blank look or avoiding eye contact when spoken to
  • Pretending not to hear
  • Deliberately not listening
  • Not taking you seriously
  • Displaying a “What’s the big deal” attitude
  • Rolling their eyes when told to do something
  • Passing a cheeky comment
  • Making fun of someone in their presence
  • Mumbling under their breath

Serious/direct forms of disrespectful behaviour

  • Looking at you straight in the eye with defiance
  • Speaking in a rude tone of voice
  • Being ill-mannered
  • Complaining about you to other adults
  • Speaking in a raised voice, yelling
  • Ignoring you when you speak
  • Being indifferent, looking bored
  • Saying “whatever” in response to being corrected for misbehaving
  • Talking back and arguing
  • Being openly defiant
  • Having a “couldn’t care less” attitude
  • Using swear words and bad language
  • Telling blatant lies
  • Using insults to hurt people
  • Being physically aggressive
  • Using abusive gestures
  • Putting somebody down
  • Raising eyebrows
  • Exhibiting arrogant behaviour
  • Neglecting or rejecting a person

There’s just so much to deal with! You wouldn’t want to be put through an emotional wringer all the time. So, how do you decide which behaviours to tackle and still stay sane?

Impact on the child
Being disrespectful places a child at a huge emotional and social disadvantage. A child’s social circle expands from home, to school, to the neighbourhood and to the larger community. Children, whose parents model disrespect by openly criticising and putting down others, turn out to be disrespectful towards their peers, teachers and other adults. Unable to build warm and trusting relationships, they face rejection, punishment, self-doubt and isolation. These can lead to more severe problems such as depression and serious behaviour problems.
Although mild disrespectful behaviour is tolerable even if upsetting, don’t ignore it. Address it firmly or it can turn into serious disrespectful behaviour. Disrespectful children are likely to become rude adults, observes a study published in the Journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2015. Don’t let your child get away with serious forms of misbehaviour. Surely, you wouldn’t want her to run the risk of becoming a rude adult.

Are disrespect and disobedience the same?
In cultures where the authoritarian style of leadership or parenting (a ‘do-as-I-say’ controlling parent) is prevalent, a child’s obedience to authority is considered to be a virtue. Disobedience is equated with disrespect. The two, however, are different. A child is usually disobedient with the purpose of defying someone or rebelling against something. On the other hand, a child is usually disrespectful when he struggles to cope with an emotion, when he feels out of control or when his disrespectful behaviour has been inadvertently reinforced in his environment.

How to ambush disrespect

Much as you try to teach your child to be respectful, there will be times when she doesn’t get it right. Here are a few strategies you can use:

  • Establish family rules
    Teach your child why rules are important and how to follow them. Rules help maintain order in your home. They teach family members how to respect personal and shared space. For example, put things away in their places so your house remains neat and tidy for others. Rules also guide your child on how to interact with people and her environment in respectful ways.
  • Set expectations and consequences
    Let your child know that you expect him to behave in specific appropriate ways. Start with teaching common courtesies that show respect for others. Practice these behaviours yourself so that he learns by observing you. Remember, you are his most influential role-model. He is watching you when you least expect it.
  • Appreciate specific behaviour
    Your child needs concrete experiences to understand abstract concepts. Name the behaviour and explain what makes it respectful or disrespectful. For example, show your appreciation for her respectful behaviour by saying, “When you offered a seat to the old man at the bus stop, you showed respect for him. Good for you.”
  • Decide which behaviours to address
    Make a note of all the mildly disrespectful behaviour that you can live with. Decide that you will not let such behaviour throw you into an emotional spin. But don’t ignore it altogether. Turn some of this behaviour, such as rolling of eyes and stomping of feet, into a fun imitation game, to take the stress out of it.
  • Give frequent reminders
    Once is never enough. Your child needs constant reminders because that’s how children are. It will take many repetitions before he gets it right. And then he will forget about it again! Heavy doses of patience will see you through.
  • Teach her how to manage emotions
    Behind disrespectful behaviour lie strong difficult emotions such as anger, hurt, frustration and anxiety. Teach your child how to manage these emotions by first learning to name them. As she talks to you about her feelings she learns to face them head-on. When you give her a safe space to vent her feelings, her emotions become less intense and more manageable.
  • Model emotional regulation
    Follow the same process just mentioned for yourself. Find someone comfortable to talk to — a compassionate listener. An unrestrained outpouring of your emotions gives you great relief and is often enough to put you back on track. Once you accept your emotions as being normal, the inner conflict of trying to suppress them disappears. You are now free to step back and view the situation with clarity and perspective.

FOR TEENS

  • Give an open invitation
    Tempted as you may be to advise your teen on many things (after all, you know the ways of the world), be wise and hold back the lectures. Instead, take cues from him. It takes practice and keen observation to figure out his changing moods. At the least, give him an open invitation to ask for your time and attention anytime he needs it.
  • Stay tuned
    Be alert, be aware. Your teen will experience highs and lows as she ventures into new territories – friends, relationships, risks, dreams and aspirations. Look out for changes in her behaviour that echo disrespect. It could be her way of reaching out to you for help and support to cope with complex teen experiences.

How to deal with disrespect in the moment

Here are some tips to help you when you find yourself caught in a tense situation with your child:

  • Acknowledge your hurt feelings
    Name all the emotions you are feeling, one at a time. Acknowledge that you’re feeling hurt/angry/bitter/disappointed. Don’t push your feelings away. Just watch them come and go. Feel your anger but remember that expressing your anger can reinforce and escalate it. Research shows that expressing your anger while you are angry actually makes you angrier.
  • Know the purpose
    Every behaviour has a purpose behind it. What is your child’s need? Is it physical or emotional? Think about what she may want from you — could it be a hug to feel safe, food because she is hungry, your soft soothing voice to calm her?, Or, perhaps she is looking for your help to talk about her feelings.
  • Use logic and give direction
    The more your child yells and shouts, the less you understand what he is saying. Use logical statements to explain – “If you stop shouting I can listen to you.” “If you allow me to finish the call quickly we can soon get back to playing the game.”
  • Don’t take it personally
    Parental power and control give you confidence. But don’t take a child’s disobedience personally, as if you are responsible for it. Interpreting disrespect as disobedience puts your confidence under threat. Just remember, your child’s misbehaviour is not about you. It’s about herself. Let it stay that way. Take a step back; view the situation from the outside, just so that your emotions don’t complicate her experience. Bite your tongue — before the situation descends into a battle of words.

We know that children are far from perfect beings nor should we really expect them to be. Although disrespectful behaviour is undesirable, it is those very behaviours that present worthwhile opportunities for you to teach your child how to be respectful.

In a Nutshell

  • Respect entails behaving with thoughtfulness, politeness and courtesy and being mindful of the other’s thoughts and feelings
  • Teaching children about respect forms an important part of how they learn to build relationships
  • Children could be disrespectful for a number of reasons such as feeling frustrated, having unmet needs or their disrespectful behaviour being ignored or reinforced
  • Dealing with disrespect entails modelling respectful behaviour, setting age-appropriate rules and giving frequent reminders

What you can do right away

  • Have your child name the different feelings he has over the course of a day and teach him how to manage them
  • Make a note of the kinds of mild disrespectful behaviour your child displays and think about how you can turn those into teachable moment

About the author
Written by Arundhati Swamy on 23 July 2019.
Arundhati Swamy is a family counsellor and Head of the Parent Engagement Program at ParentCircle.

About the expert
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 5 August 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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