| Family Reflections |


When our child is sounding off, we have to keep our cool


"It was the end of the day, and I was tired. Really tired. I asked my 15-year-old daughter to please help set the table for dinner. She told me she couldn’t. Of course, I launched into a full-on rant, saying all the things any parent would say to such a spoiled child. She eventually got up and, with a miserable face, started slamming plates on the table.”

So begins an interesting parenting dilemma. Mom is naturally outraged at the disrespectful, self-centered, and lazy attitude of her teenage daughter. But, being a thoughtful parent, she realizes her “full-on rant” probably wasn’t the best way to address these problems. She notes that although her daughter eventually does what she’s been asked to do, the basic problem — her attitude — is far from fixed.

What causes a child to be rude to parents? Sometimes it’s just a matter of accurately copying parents! Look at this dialogue, for example:

Child: “There’s never anything to eat in this house.”

Parent: “If you don’t like living here, then why don’t you just pack your bags and live somewhere else?”

The child’s complaint is, of course, unacceptable. But the parent’s response is equally rude. If this is how the parent speaks, he or she shouldn’t be surprised when the child also speaks disrespectfully.

Of course, many parents are careful to model respectful speech. These parents, like others, may still have children who are sometimes chutzpadig. Perhaps the child learned this behavior from school or elsewhere. Maybe the child simply has a nature that is intense and dramatic and has discovered on his own that forceful communication can “work” for him.

No matter how the habit of disrespectful speech was first acquired, when an older child is still using it, it means that this speech pattern has been maintained by specific circumstances.

One such circumstance is that the parents might not have directly addressed the inappropriate pattern of speech. If a child says something unacceptable, and the parents don’t specifically take steps to end that way of speaking, the child’s brain says something like “all clear” and sends a green light signal to allow this kind of language pattern into the “regular use” section of the brain.

Worse yet, parents might accidentally encourage the development of rude speech by giving it a lot of attention (i.e. lecturing the child when it happens). Moreover, if parents get really upset and yell at the child, they model the very behavior they’re trying to eliminate. And, as we saw above, if the child resents the tantrum the parent threw, then the resentment itself can lead to an increase in dysfunctional and unhealthy behaviors in the child.

If parents ignore rude behavior, it will continue to happen, but if they attend to it, it will also continue to happen! What then are parents supposed to do to extinguish disrespectful speech or actions from their child’s repertoire?

Teaching Respect

Parents need to be psychologically prepared to deal with disrespectful behavior because almost all children experiment with such behavior at one time or another. When it happens, parents need to keep two things in mind: the impact of their personal model and the impact of their rejection and negativity.

Ideally, in a respectful manner, they can inform their child that respectful speech and action is required. They can then ask the child to redo his or her behavior, this time speaking and acting respectfully. Once the child has done this, the parents give plenty of positive attention to reward the brain circuits for the new, appropriate behavior. Here’s what this might look like:

“I asked my 15-year-old daughter to help me set the table. She told me she couldn’t. I said, ‘Sweetheart, would you please try that again? Mommy just asked you to please help set the table.’ She knew full well what I was asking for, so she got up and said, ‘Sure,’ and quietly went about setting the table.”

Mom’s pleasant correction elicited no resistance and no “attitude.” The daughter knew she was wrong and knew what was wanted of her.

However, in some cases a parent will need to spell out more clearly what is needed in terms of a repair, especially with younger children who are still learning. “Please ask me, ‘Mommy, can I please do it in five minutes?’” Whether little detail or lots of detail is required, the same principles will apply: model the desired behavior and ask for the behavior you desire.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 668)

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Tagged: Family Reflections