It is possible to model and teach kids respect without allowing them to walk all over us. Here are four ways to make that happen.
“You’re stupid!” your child yells as she crosses her arms and stomps her feet, giving you the stink eye.
Your offense? Telling her that she needs to wait to have a cookie until after dinner.
Later that day, you have to cancel plans to go to the playground – an activity your daughter was looking forward to.
“I hate you!” she responds while throwing crayons across the room.
And at bedtime when asked to get dressed, she responds by announcing “You can’t make me!” while scrunching up her face and sticking out her tongue.
Disrespect appears to be rampant at your house.
Which causes you to worry – how in the world did you end up with such a disrespectful child and is it even possible to turn this behavior around?
What doesn’t work to address disrespect
When kids are disrespectful, the most common (and completely natural!) emotions parents feel are anger, humiliation, and the urge to send a message that their child’s behavior is unacceptable.
And while every child needs to understand that throwing objects and disrespectful back talk is unacceptable, the most common ways parents address these issues – with time-outs, consequences, or other punishments – simply don’t work.
These responses may make a big statement and cause a child to stop being disrespectful in the moment, but they don’t actually teach kids how to behave better. In fact, these responses can make the situation worse.
So what’s a parent to do?
How to teach kids to be respectful (and not lose your self-respect)
Kids learn respect when respect is modeled for them by adults, and especially their parents.
But wait! I know what you’re thinking…”How am I supposed to model respect to someone who is so incredibly disrespectful to me? Am I just supposed to roll over and take it, essentially leaving my self-respect at the door?”
No, definitely not.
Although it’s not easy, it is possible to both model respect for your child – essentially showing them respect – without completely losing your own sense of self-worth, or even influence, as a parent.
In fact, by following the steps below you’ll not only be teaching your child how to be respectful but also will be reducing the number of power struggles and arguments you have – creating a stronger and more peaceful relationship.
The 4 ways we can teach kids respect
Everyone, including kids, has an innate need to feel seen, acknowledged, and heard.
When this need isn’t fulfilled, or if the opposite occurs and a person’s opinions, frustrations, thoughts, and feelings are invalidated, that person may feel justified responding with disrespect.
Kids have the extra challenge of not having the emotional maturity to regulate their emotions or fully grasp the impact of what they say or do. This immaturity can cause them to act on impulse or speak without a filter, thus leading to back talk, throwing, hitting, or any other form of disrespect.
Seen in this light, it’s clear that the more we are able to let our child be seen and heard (i.e., show them respect) – by listening to them, empathizing with them, giving them autonomy – and model respectful behavior, the more our child will begin to show respect toward us in return.
This transition isn’t easy, especially if you’re of the mindset that parents need to be in control (see why control can backfire here) or if you’re inclined to not “let our child get away with” bad behavior.
But if we truly want to see a change in our child’s behavior to one that’s more respectful, and at the same time strengthen our relationship with them, the steps below can help.
#1 – Listen and reflect on what your child has to say
As mentioned before, all people, and especially kids, have a need and yearning to be seen and heard.
Feeling seen and heard makes us feel safe and respected. And when we feel safe and respected, we feel more inclined to listen to and cooperate with whomever we’re interacting with.
And the opposite is also true – when we feel we aren’t seen and heard, we get angry and can feel inclined to make the other person feel as bad as we do.
Therefore, we can break the cycle of disrespect by actively listening to our child’s concerns or frustrations. Listening to our child actively, by acknowledging what they’re saying to us, has an immediate effect of fulfilling our child’s desire to be seen and heard.
Like in the example above, when the playground outing is canceled and the child is upset, the parent can say: “You really wanted to go to the playground and now you’re frustrated that we can’t.”
A simple acknowledgement like this can begin to wind a conflict down as the child now feels like their emotions are being heard and acknowledged.
At this point you may be thinking: But wouldn’t I be giving in, losing my authority, and condoning her bad behavior if I do this right after my child just said she hates me?
It can take resolve not to react to such a mean-spirited statement, but it’s helpful to have perspective on why your child said it: She’s frustrated, is emotionally immature, and doesn’t realize there are better and more appropriate ways to respond.
And by all means, that disrespectful back talk does need to be addressed. After you’ve acknowledged your child’s feelings address how that statement made you feel:
“Saying that you hate me is hurtful. I’m sure you would not want me or anyone else to say that to you. It’s OK to be upset, but let’s find some other ways for you to express that emotion.”
#2 – Show your child empathy – even when they’re being difficult
Empathy is a strong way to build a bridge in any relationship. And if we want our own children to demonstrate empathy (which is ultimately a sign of respect) to others, we need to model it.
It’s easy to show empathy to our child when they’ve hurt themselves physically or been hurt emotionally.
It can be more challenging when we’re in conflict with them or our child has misbehaved.
Similar to active listening, showing empathy to our child fulfills their need to be seen and heard. It’s a way we can show our child that we respect them and their emotions, even if their behavior needs correction.
So when your child hits out of frustration that they can’t play with a toy their sibling is playing with, you can start by showing empathy:
“You really wanted to play with that toy didn’t you? It’s one of your favorites. It must feel frustrating to not be able to play with it when you want to.”
From there we can problem solve with our child and discuss sharing and taking turns. Once that’s resolved, it’s time to address the unacceptable behavior of hitting.
“It’s OK to feel angry, but it’s never OK to hit anyone. Not me, not your brother, not anyone. No matter how angry you feel. What are some other ways you can express that emotion?”
#3 – Allow for autonomy whenever possible
It may seem strange that by allowing our kids autonomy we’re showing them respect.
But think of it this way: kids spend most of their lives being told what to do, when to do it, and what not to do. It can feel very demeaning to rarely be given the chance to make your own decisions or feel a sense of control over your life.
While kids need guidance and direction from their parents and other important adults in their lives, we can do small but significant things that give kids a sense of control.
For example, we can let young kids pick out which outfit they will wear, or which plate they’ll use to eat breakfast.
Older kids can be given the autonomy of choosing a time when they will complete chores or tasks like putting their laundry away, or vacuuming their room. Of course, this time needs to be reasonable, but will be better received if chosen by the child than dictated by the parent.
Allowing kids autonomy in many small (and ultimately harmless) ways will spill over into our other interactions we have with them. If our child’s needs for respect and autonomy are frequently being met, they will feel less need to argue with us (and disrespect us) during moments when they have less control and autonomy.
#4 – Apologize when you’re wrong
A key way we can model respect for our kids is to apologize when we’ve made a mistake.
Some parents view an apology as “giving in” or losing some control in their relationship with their child.
But in addition to teaching our kids how to be respectful, apologizing builds trust and can increase the influence we have over them.
The more trust we build within any relationship, the more the other person will be willing to listen to, consider, and respect what we’re saying.
You’ll also likely find that the more you readily apologize to your child, the more they will naturally apologize over mistakes they’ve made. And this respectful attitude will carry over into other important relationships in their lives.
But what if I’m already respectful and my child still walks all over me?
Remember that there are two parts to the process of teaching kids respect – modeling respect to them but also correcting any behavior that’s disrespectful.
Just because our kids are immature and don’t fully understand what they’re doing, we shouldn’t allow them to walk all over us and treat us with disrespect.
In fact, this could have dangerous consequences – if a child feels comfortable disrespecting a parent, they may carry this normalcy of disrespect into other significant relationships.
We have every right to stand up for ourselves, but we can do this in a respectful way.
For example, if your child is yelling at you, calmly tell them that as a rule you do not talk to anyone who yells so they will have to lower their voice before telling you how they feel.
If your child calls you names, or tells you that you’re stupid, for example, you can also calmly and respectfully let them know that you have too much self-respect to allow someone to call you names. You would like to hear what they have to say but they will need to do it respectfully.
In other words, be clear about your own personal boundaries – but communicate them in a way that is calm and respectful to your child. After all, their actions come from a place of immaturity and confusion, and need correction, not condemnation.
The more we model respect for our kids and respect for ourselves, the more our kids will understand the value of receiving and showing respect – and start to act respectful in their interactions with us and others.
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About Kerry Flatley
Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while still raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put those ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.