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Disrespectful Behavior in Children

Parents of pre-teen and teenaged children are often heard complaining about experiencing disrespectful behavior from their children.  Is this really new behavior from their children?  What is the cause of this behavior?  How can parents and babysitters help their children through these difficult times? 

Is this really new behavior? 

Disrespectful behavior naturally ebbs and flows throughout a child’s development.  Early roots of this behavior can be found in the toddler years.  Parents of toddlers frequently complain that their children say, “NO!” to every question or direction given them.  

What is the cause? 

Children exhibit disrespectful behavior for a number of reasons.   Many times, disrespectful behavior is born of a child’s attempt to differentiate from his or her parents.  The toddler says, “NO!” because s/he has become aware that s/he is an individual, an entity separate and distinct from his/her parents, and is learning to exercise his/her own voice as an expression of his/her individuation (differentiation from his/her parents).  Similarly, the pre-teen or teenaged child will violate parental boundaries to exercise his/her own voice as an expression of his/her individuation.   It also bears noting that, as children age, they observe the behaviors of the people in their environment.  They adopt behaviors that they want to emulate from those in their environment.  In the course of this process, however, children also observe behaviors that they do not wish to emulate.   These behaviors may become the subject of their criticism.  This can be unpleasant to deal with, but it is a normal part of children deciding who they are and who they wish to become.  The way that this disrespectful behavior manifests may evolve as children age, but the underlying sentiment remains.

How can parents help their children through these difficult times?

Parents of children exhibiting disrespectful behavior need  to walk the fine line between being understanding of the psychological processes in play and being supportive of the social rules being violated.  For example, a parent whose pre-teen has missed curfew for the second consecutive weekend may say, “Joanna, I have heard you say that curfews are for kids and so they shouldn’t apply to you.  I understand that you feel restricted or confined.  I don’t want you to feel restricted or confined in your own home, but I am responsible for your well being because you are still a legal minor.  I love you and want to find a way that we can meet your need to be your own person while still being responsive to my need to be an effective parent for you.  Can we talk about that?”

In Sum

Children’s disrespectful behavior, at any age, can be unpleasant to deal with, but with proper parental handling, children can learn to express their growing individuality while also being respectful of their parents and caregivers.

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