The first thirty minutes of my family session with 13-year-old Emma was filled with sarcasm, rolling of her eyes, and responding “whatever!” to the concerns expressed by her parents. I’ve learned over many years to become a somewhat patient psychologist, but I couldn’t tolerate this behavior any more, even in the name of family therapy.
I asked Emma to leave my office for a few moments, and asked the parents if they experienced the same disrespectful behavior at home that I was observing in my office. The parents described their daughter as a polite kid at school, and they had never received any complaints from her teachers or her basketball coaches. Emma saved her rude behavior for her parents.
“I guess it’s just her age” remarked Emma’s mom. “We’re just happy that she’s communicating with us rather than spending hours alone in her room. We want our home to be a safe place where Emma can really say what she feels.”
This is a great example of disrespect masquerading as self-expression. Emma clearly has the skills to act appropriately with adults at school and in many other settings, but only behaves badly at home with her parents. Might there be some deep rooted reason for her behavior, uncovered only after months of therapy? In most cases, the answer is very simple. Emma acts that way because her parents allow it.
I applauded the parents’ desire to stay close and connected to their daughter, but tolerating rude behavior doesn’t achieve that goal. Real communication is based upon mutual respect and a genuine effort to understand another’s point of view, not typically achieved with sarcasm and cynicism.
The three step solution was straightforward. First, make your expectations very clear and specific with your teen. Be firm that disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated. Give specific examples of behavior that you consider rude.
Second, implement a brief consequence whenever that behavior occurs. Sending a teen to her room if only for a few moments with a stern correction or taking away a cell phone sends the message that you will not allow your child to verbally abuse you.
Finally, be consistent with these expectations and consequences. Don’t make excuses if your teen has had a tough day or is upset. Help her learn the self-control she will need to be successful in the real world where offensive behavior isn’t excused.
It took only a week or so for the parents to see a dramatic change in Emma’s behavior. She was a good kid who simply acted in ways that her parents accepted. Once new rules were established, Emma learned more effective ways to express her frustration about some of the family rules. Those discussions were easier when she acted more respectfully.
Please don’t justify your teen’s rudeness as ‘just a phase.’ Set and enforce clear standards, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the changes in your young adult.
Dr. Ramey, who is a child psychologist and Vice President at Dayton Children’s Medical Center, can be reached at Rameyg@childrensdayton.org