Teaching Kids to Be Respectful

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Whether disrespectful behavior plays out in the sandbox, the family room or the boardroom, being on the receiving end hurts. Adults and children alike feel the sting of disrespect. A study done at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, reveals that children as young as 6 recognize and respond to disrespect, often with anger. Parents and caregivers use the term disrespect to cover a broad range of behaviors, from failing to offer polite greetings to eye rolls, sighs and mouthing off. If disrespect is a regular visitor in your home, it’s possible to build more respectful family relationships based on empathy and mutual respect, says Tiffany Sands, a licensed counselor in Chapel Hill. Read on for age-by-age guidance on ditching disrespect for good. 

Early Years

Model Behavior

Many parents dream of peaceful, respectful interactions with their children that includes comfortable, easy, back-and-forth dialogue that flows from a solid bond. These types of relationships, however, don’t just happen. Respectful communication is a byproduct of a healthy relationship, says licensed counselor and professor Susan K. Gardin of Touro College in New York City.

“Young children learn respect when they observe respectful behavior and experience respectful interactions with parents and other family members,” she says. “Building a close and connected relationship with your child is the most important factor in preventing disrespectful behavior.”

Begin building a respectful bond in toddlerhood by listening to your child, displaying empathy and validating her feelings using phrases, such as “You’re feeling mad. That must be hard. How can I help?” Children raised with a foundation of mutual respect are more likely to treat parents and siblings with mutual respect.

Elementary Years

Respectful Roots

During the elementary school years, children may act out in ways that feel disrespectful to parents, teachers and other authority figures with actions like eye rolling, slouching and muttering insults. Though it’s tempting to simply dole out punishment for the misdeeds (“I heard that! You’re grounded!”), it’s vital to look closer at the behavior’s underlying cause.

Children behave disrespectfully when they feel they’re not being heard, Sands says. “Often, there is a need that’s not being met, such as the parent not spending enough time with their child or not responding respectfully to the child’s needs,” she says. “Or the child may be struggling academically or socially and doesn’t know how to express their feelings appropriately.”

Listening to your child, asking him for his opinions, and displaying confidence in his ability to solve a problem can help your child feel heard and respected, dialing down the chance of future angry outbursts.

Teen Years

Higher Ground

Teens may look like young adults, but they’re still kids — big ones, with big feelings. During the teenage years, those big feelings can fuel disrespectful shouting matches between teens and their parents or siblings.

“There is no right or wrong to feelings, and feelings can’t be disrespectful,” Gardin says. “But when a child is flooded with feelings, his emotional brain takes over and prevents his logical brain from recognizing that shouting isn’t going to help him resolve the problem.”

To calm the storm, help your teen flee the flood by calming her emotional brain. Strive to understand your teen’s point of view. (“Help me understand. Do I have this right?”) Accept and validate her feelings — even if you don’t agree with her — to diffuse your teen’s overly reactive state, Sands says. This can help establish mutually respectful communication and build an enduring, enriching bond.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.”