Banishing the 'Bad Attitude'! A Reality Check On The 'Disrespectful Child'

It’s very easy to feel triggered when the young people we work with, and/or live with, are rude or bad mannered; when they appear entitled, hostile, ignorant and all other things we call ‘disrespectful’.

I actually get a little triggered by the word ‘respect’, not because I don’t believe in it, but because I’ve witnessed many people, mainly grown-ups, demand respect, mainly from children, in very disrespectful ways.
In an ideal world, genuine respect is a two way street; it shouldn’t really be demanded at all.

Perhaps for this reason, I don’t get particularly triggered when, for example, my own child talks to me in ways I know others would perceive as ‘disrespectful’.
Not because I’m over-tolerant or permissive, but just because I think there’s often more to our interpretation of ‘disrespect’ than we realise.

In my experience, disrespect is frequently a very ‘surface’ problem.
However, once we’re triggered by it, we seldom pause to question it, and then our reactivity can obscure what else might be going on; for example, whether what we think of as ‘rude’ is simply a by-product of tiredness, hunger, boredom, overwhelm or stress.

I’m not saying that those things make it acceptable to be disrespectful or to talk to someone like s***. 
But how often do we end up fanning the flames in these moments, instead of resolving the problem in a meaningful way?

It’s not always easy, or even possible, but when we can stay out – or step out – of taking it personally, of defaulting into a ‘How dare this child talk to me like that?‘ mindset, we can instead ask ‘How do I help them to recognise their feelings, and then communicate them in more effective ways?’ 

Reality check; plenty of adults can’t do this.

It’s not true in every case, of course, but by and large, children learn to be respectful by being treated respectfully. 
We may forget that their communication style is a typical reflection of how others talk to them; that their behaviours are they way they hold up a mirror to their adults’ behaviours.

Usually, those adults are within the child’s immediate circle, family members etc., but the truth is that maybe we don’t always talk to the young people in our worlds in ways which can be described as ‘respectful’ either. 

Being what you want to see’ doesn’t mean undermining our own authority or being permissive. We can be both emotionally intelligent and practice healthy boundaries at the same time.

IMO, the development of respectful children requires two distinct conditions, which, while they’re both achievable in time, are still an invite to check whether our expectations about how children ‘should’ behave, interact and communicate need some adjustment.

1) Young people need to foster an intrinsic belief in the value of being respectful. Directions, force or command may achieve compliance, but that’s quite different from genuine respect. 

2) Pro-social skills, because possessing a respectful attitude doesn’t automatically equate to ‘respectful behaviours’; they entail a sophisticated set of competencies, such as good communication, impulse control, empathy etc. which inevitably take time and practice to master.

Not instantly cutting ‘disrespectful’ children down to size can be counter-intuitive, meaning we may need time and practice ourselves to work on our impulse control and communication style too.

But when we can respond with awareness, instead of reacting without it, we are much better equipped to meaningfully coach our young people about what respect looks like, sounds like and feels like.