How I deal with my teenager’s ‘disrespect’
Those were the words that cut off my recent attempt-to-connect sentence coming out of my mouth: “Sweetie, let’s try talking abo-”
As the door slammed behind my just-turned 13-year-old son, I tried picking my jaw off the floor. I didn’t know which emotion to run with . . .
- sadness and despair at how gruelingly difficult it is to make meaningful contact and connection
- shock and anger at his disrespectful way of communicating with me
It’s not exactly new this . . . since his baby days, he seems to have known just what he wanted and has had no problems expressing it! I’ve heard myself saying on several occasions that he is far from the “pleaser” personality I know best, but instead was figuratively born showing his middle finger to the world (don’t let that innocent, cute face fool you! But my sense of o-m-g, what do we have here?” hasn’t left my face in all of these 13 years.) Now that puberty is in full swing, I can’t say things are getting any easier. But thanks to all my Nonviolent Communication training, I have learned some amazing self-connection skills that help keep me grounded and somewhat sane.
Why Punishment doesn’t Work
You might be wondering why his father and I haven’t nipped this in the bud already. You know, show our boundaries by giving him effective consequences. I get it . . . my 10-year-old daughter told me a friend of hers got her IPad taken away for a month for disrespectful language, and I’m guessing she stopped that behavior pretty quickly.
This kind of punishment, threat/fear-based parenting has simply never worked with my son. It makes him dig his heels him (rebel) and connection not only gets way worse, it seems completely out of sight. He really loses respect for us then, and peace and harmony in the home is too important to us to go into that war-like state. (Especially our daughter seems to suffer on these occasions!)
So what to do? First, I breathe to keep my anger at bay, but I don’t ignore its presence. I turn to self-connection, remembering that each and every emotion is there to serve us humans . . . indicate underlying needs.
I know connection is a huge driver of mine—that one is ongoing. And I know that I get in trouble if I expect or demand that my son meet this need of mine. His needs for space, privacy, autonomy are simply way bigger right now.
My emotions are also pointing to my need for respect, or to know that he respects me despite his use of harsh language. I realize there is choice I’m facing . . . I can:
- Believe the immediate story that develops in my mind, “He is so disrespectful . . . He doesn’t care about me” which is very painful and can contribute to days of disconnection!
- Realize my story isn’t TRUTH. I can instead stay with MY need for respect. This gives me more inner calm and space to explore what I can do next to come up for my need(s).
Making Conscious Choices
I know asking (or demanding) more respectful language won’t change a thing. Just because I would have never even considered talking to my parents in this way doesn’t mean much. These are very different times now. That doesn’t mean I have to like it though, so what else can I do?
I decide to delete the unhelpful stores from my head, and in a future calm moment ask him what’s going on in him when he says such harsh things to me. When I do, I learn that he doesn’t feel proud of it, always regrets it as soon as the words slip out. His anger doesn’t last long . . . the words help him release it. AND that he does respect me.
I just came out and asked him, which helped clarify reality and going forward will help me stay with empathy. So the next time I hear him “bad mouth” me, I’ll not let the stories dominate, but instead remind myself it’s just his strategy for calming down AND he does respect me, no matter what.
This doesn’t prevent me from worrying how the rest of the world will handle his behavior, but at least I’ve found a way to deal with it while meeting my needs for both respect and connection.
(Thank you Nonviolent Communication for giving me these lifesaving skills!)
P.S. I’ve just found Online Parenting Coach’s helpful website, full of articles targeting “parents with strong-willed, out-of-control children and adolescents.” In particular this article gave me additional perspective and help in understanding my son’s behavior: