When parents lack the respect of their teen it is palpable. Parent’s experience frustration, anger, powerlessness, feeling out of control, offended, scared, and resentful towards their teen.

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Respect is an interesting concept. It is not quite a feeling, but more of an idea. You know when you have it and you definitely know when you don’t. You don’t know how to put it into words, how to get it, or keep it. It’s an abstract idea to hold in your mind.

What is respect? When you think of someone your respect, you may think of someone you look up to, admire, and want to emulate. You may think of someone who regards the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others rather than trampling them or shutting them down.

Teenagers have a hard time understanding abstract ideas like respect because firstly, their frontal lobe development lacks ability to fully understand abstract thought and ideas. Teenagers are still more concrete thinkers, meaning, if they can see it and touch it, they know what it is and that it is there. Abstract thought happens in the frontal lobe of the brain which continues to develop until around the age of 25. The frontal lobe is what makes humans different from animals and gives us the ability to reflect on ourselves and understand abstract thought (an idea that is not seen or touched, but still understood). Secondly, research has shown that adolescents have a difficult time (as do some adults) with taking the perspective of another person (i.e. putting yourself in someone else’s shoes). This is a learned skill, not something you are born with. For more information on this research, enjoy the link to this TED Talk explaining adolescent brain development: https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_jayne_blakemore_the_mysterious_workings_of_the_adolescent_brain?language=en

Respect might be an abstract concept, but we can teach our young people what respect looks like by showing them respect. Here are some helpful thoughts about how to cultivate respect with your young person:

  • Have a discussion about respect.
    Ask your teen what respect means to them. Ask them who they respect and get curious about what they see in that person that they respect. Ask them to describe how they know they respect someone and how they know they do not respect someone. Ask them what character traits they respect in a person and what character traits they do not respect in someone. Ask them how they know when they are respected by others and what others might respect in them. (Remember that fear is not respect, so if they give an answer like “They know I can kick their ass” that is not respect, that is fear, and probably some ego on the teen’s part.) Share your answers to those questions too. Don’t grill them, have a casual conversation where you share your thoughts and allow them to share their’s. Be careful not to scold, judge, or shut them down. They don’t have all these ideas fully formed and chances are, they might not have ever thought about it before. The point is that you are trying to understand how they understand respect and you are sharing your thoughts on it. This is not the time to preach or teach. If their eyes glaze over or they start giving you one-word answers, you’ve lost them. Shut up and start over another time. “I don’t know” is an answer, let them say it because they probably don’t know. Ask them to think about it and assure them there are no wrong answers, you are just curious what they think. If they still say “I don’t know” then that’s ok (frustrating, I know, but ok). The point is, you asked the question and whether or not you heard the answer, they probably started thinking about it.
  • Take the information you gained from that conversation and use it.
    Listen to the characteristics of people they respect and do a quick moral inventory of yourself (This is sometimes hard as it requires us to be rigorously honest with ourselves and is difficult to do when we cannot see our own blind spots). Ask a friend, spouse, therapist, or even your teen for help seeing your blind spots! Remember, try not to react offensively when given feedback, you asked for help! Take the feedback! You have room to grow! If they tell you something you disagree with, you do not have to respond, simply take note of it and see where they might be right. Sleep on it for a few days. Let it sink in. They shared their experience of you, so whether or not you can see it, there is some reason why they said it.
  • Make amends.
    Enough cannot be said about an adult’s ability to own their mistakes with their children. This is a powerful tool to use with your teens and is widely underrated and under-utilized. An amends is different than an apology. An apology is saying “I’m sorry” which loses it’s meaning after being said over and over again for the same behavior. An amends has got more “oomph” to it. An amends is stating that a behavior was wrong and owning that you were wrong for saying or acting a certain way. It is asking what you can do to make it right (that is reasonable, I definitely understand that a teen may take advantage of this). Then, it is stating how you would like to handle that type of situation in the future. What about this process facilitates respect? Some thoughts are: your ability to acknowledge your wrongs and handling it in a graceful, respectful way. It teaches them how they can make an amends when they mess up. Humility is a building block of respect (a whole blog post can be written about humility as well). To be humble means to accept that you have more to learn, that you are not so ridged as to think that you could not possibly be wrong. That characteristic commands respect and others will typically follow its example when given.
  • Respect is about trust.
    A wise 15 year old client taught me this when they discovered they had a very difficult time being respectful to their parent when they felt they could not trust them. Trust is another one of those tricky, abstract ideas that is difficult to explain, but yet you know when you have it and you know when you don’t. Ask your teen “Do you trust me?” This is a vulnerable question that you may not like the answer to. However, this will open a world of conversation that you have never had before. You might even ask them if they can trust you with some things but not others and get curious about what those things are that they trust/distrust you with. Trust is not simply about being able to “keep secrets,” it is about being able to be vulnerable and not fear they will be invalidated, scolded, or shut down when being vulnerable. (Again, a whole other blog can be written about trust alone). Make sure to share your thoughts with them as well, what you trust them with and what you do not. If they react defensively, try not to talk them out of their feelings. Simply state that you are sharing with them how you feel and acknowledge that you both probably have some work to do in this area with each other.
  • The 5 to 1 ratio.
    The Gottman Institute has been studying marriage for years and they have found a very important secret to happiness in marriage: for every one negative interaction, there should be five positive interactions. (Take a look at this post for more information https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/ ). This ratio applies to more than just happy marriages, it also applies to all relationships! So, take a look at the negative to positive interactions you have with your teen. If you are only fighting, discussing grades, doling out consequences, and scolding them for choices they have made, then there will be less trust and less respect. One of the top 5 suggestions I give to parents in sessions is to go do something fun and light-hearted with your teen at least once a week. Ask them what they want to go do, go see a movie, a concert, hiking, riding a bike, fishing, an art class, go to a museum, art exhibit, skate park, Pokemon Go! Just go do something! Before you start your activity, preface to your teen that you will both stay off your phones and be present with each other and you both will keep the conversation light! Parents, you will not talk about school, grades, friends, sports, or any other controversial topic during the activity. If they mention it, great, nod your head and LISTEN only! Sometimes I suggest for a family to come up with a “code word” to quickly shift gears if someone starts to wander into emotionally triggering territory. Make it something neutral like “waffles” or “red light” then quickly change the subject. When you spend time with your teen having fun and just being a person with them, you will be surprised by what you learn about them and you will have added trust into your relationship.
  • Act with integrity.
    As an unruly teen myself, this was my biggest disrespect trigger. When adults said things like “Do what I say, not what I do” respect was lost completely. If they told me “because I said so” with no explanation, I lost respect. Imagine a co-worker, boss, or spouse saying this to you…condescending right? Well, teenagers are adults in the making and should be treated as such. If we are telling them to get off their phones and go be outside, we should be doing the same thing. If we are telling them to eat vegetables and not an entire bag of chips, we should be doing that too! So, if we want our teens to respect us, we must act respectfully towards them. That means taking the time to explain a decision. (If they “don’t get it” no matter how many times you explain, then its usually because there is no good enough reason for them to not get their way. Don’t waste your breath, state something like “I told you the reason, its ok if you don’t like it.”) Follow through with your word. When you set a boundary and a consequence and do not follow through with it, you have just lied to them. If you have done this repeatedly, then there is not trust there. They either react as if you are threatening them, or they don’t respect the boundary because you’ve taught them that it is not real. It means following our own advice and practicing what we preach. People watch what we do, not what we say. We teach people how to treat us by treating them the way we would like to be treated.
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  • Give them space to have their feelings.
    I feel like this comes up in sessions repeatedly. Parents often are appalled by their child’s reaction to a consequence or boundary (obviously there are some extreme cases, in which case you may want to seek family therapy for assistance). The parent either expects them to have some kind of reaction like “Thank you mother and father for your amazing boundary and your infinite wisdom. I appreciate you doing for me what I cannot do for myself right now.” Laughable right!? Most teens just are not going to respond that way. They will be angry, sad, shut down, irritable, etc. Then some parents want to keep talking to their kid to try to make them feel better about the consequence or boundary. This is called “talking someone out of their feelings,” and it usually doesn’t work and ends up in an argument. If you set a boundary like “You must pass all your classes to attend a concert at the end of the month” and they have not met that boundary and therefore cannot go to the concert, they are allowed to have their feelings about it. Set the boundary and follow through with the consequence then walk away. They are allowed to be disappointed and upset. This is learning that you really mean it. The boundary was real and so was the consequence. They may not like you right then, but they will respect it and you because you are being straight forward with them and letting them process it.

If you would like more information, learn how to apply these tips to your personal relationships, or need some assistance clearing out the resentment to get to a place to utilize these tips, then please give us a call! We have plenty of therapists that specialize in individual, couple, parent and co-parenting, and family sessions with adults, young adults, teens, tweens, and children of all ages. 713-628-3966. To learn more about us please visit https://malatytherapy.com