What’s the right way to handle a disrespectful child?
My son is 8, is a great kid all around, but he’s mean to me. He can be sweet and loving one minute, but a rude and disrespectful child the next. He talks back, ignores me when I’m talking, and “accidentally” bumps me with his backpack when we’re walking into school. The teachers have no complaints, he behaves perfectly at school, it’s only at home with me that his disrespectful behavior comes out. What am I doing that makes him treat me so poorly? -Ava
Thank you for this question, Ava.
I’ll never forget when the speaker’s bureau I worked for asked me, “Could you teach a class on raising gracious children?”
I thought they were joking. They knew my daughter. They had been around her since she was a baby. Every time I brought her in, they would say “Hi, how are you?” “look at your cute shoes?” “How old are you?” She NEVER answered.
She would stare and glare but never smile and never respond, so I thought they were being sarcastic: making a joke about ME teaching a class on gracious children based on my very ungracious daughter!
The “people-pleaser” in me was embarrassed by her behavior, but my co-workers weren’t as bothered by her as I was.
They were serious.
I figured this would be a good challenge for me, so I took it on.
Here’s what I learned in my research and preparation for teaching this class on raising gracious children: Children learn by imitation. If you are kind and polite, chances are they will be too. EVENTUALLY. When they are little, their personality, emotions, and other motivations come before social niceties.
So the real question I set out to answer is: “How do I act graciously, no matter how my child is behaving?”
I’ll dive into this in the life coaching answer, but first, we’ll start with the parent education answer.
Parent Education answer
We want to take a look at what might be motivating Ava’s son to be polite at school and be a rude and disrespectful child at home.
Based on your scenario, I’m going to guess it’s one of two things:
1. He feels yucky on the inside and wants you to know it.
It’s possible he doesn’t know how to express his negative emotion in a constructive way, and/or he doesn’t feel like it’s ok to have negative emotions like anger or sadness.
If this is the case, helping him develop some emotional vocabulary is very helpful. You can do this by talking about your own emotions, “I feel so mad I want to hit something” (you could even find something to hit like a couch cushion or kick an empty cardboard box).
If you were feeling low, you could say, “I feel sad so I’m going outside to be by myself.” or “I’m disappointed that my friend canceled plans so I’m going to draw a picture of what I’m feeling.”
Showing him that everyone has negative emotions sometimes, and modeling how to cope in healthy and appropriate ways would boost his emotional intelligence.
You can also help him pay attention to his emotions when you notice he’s starting to misbehave by saying things like “You feel disappointed” or “You feel frustrated.”
Print out a page of different emotion faces and put it on your fridge to help him identify and understand the nuances of his different emotions.
When we are having strong emotions, they can feel really overwhelming. By naming them, we contain them; it makes them feel manageable.
I learned this when I was 14 and tried out for cheerleading. I worked hard and did my best but didn’t make the squad.
When I walked in the house after the tryouts, my dad said, “I thought you said you wouldn’t be disappointed if you didn’t make the squad?” I burst into tears, yelled, “I said I WOULD be disappointed!” I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door.
I remember looking in the mirror as the tears flowed down my face and said to myself, “I’m disappointed. Is that what this is? I’ve been disappointed before. I can handle this.”
Then I felt fine. I was totally over it. Even the following year when I tried out again and didn’t make it, I allowed myself to be disappointed without any drama.
Humans aren’t meant to be happy all the time. We want to make sure our kids have access to the wide range of human emotions, and we can do this by modeling it for them in a healthy way.
2. He wants you to discipline him.
Discipline comes from the root word discipulus- the Latin word for student. Kids like rules and structure when it comes to their behavior, even if they don’t show it.
When kids know what to expect, it calms them down. Sometimes they may choose to ignore our expectations, but it’s our job to lay it out there and tell them the behavior we want to see.
I struggled with parenting a rebellious child who was always fighting for power. I would try and offer her choices: “Do you want to wear the red or the blue?” She would NEVER choose one of my options. She’d always go for whatever I didn’t want her to wear, just to defy me.
I would offer mac ‘n cheese or peanut butter sandwich and she would declare that she will only eat red foods. As soon as my fridge was full of red food, she would switch to green. It drove me crazy because I wanted life to be easy and for us to get along. She just wanted to assert her power.
After much debate, I decided to put my strong-willed daughter in Catholic school. I was nervous. It was a great kindergarten program with the most fabulous teacher, but it was old-school strict.
These kids were taught to BEHAVE. I thought, “It’s either going to be great, or really terrible.” My plan was to switch her to a Montessori school for first grade, assuming Kindergarten was going to be a nightmare.
Her teacher was so savvy. My daughter tested her for the first four months. How much can I get away with? Do you really mean what you say? What if I do it this way? You draw the line here, what about here?
As soon as my daughter realized that she couldn’t outsmart her teacher, she relaxed. It’s like all that energy and attention she was putting into trying to control everyone and everything, could shift into learning and being a kid.
Some kids are strong willed and will fight for power, but it’s too much responsibility for them to be in charge. No five year old, or eight year old, should be in charge.
When kids know there is a strong authority figure present, they get to be a kid. They get to relax and play, knowing someone else will steer them back on track if they wander.
Could it be, Ava, that your son is asking for more discipline?
Life Coaching Answer:
Based on your question, Ava, I’m going to guess that you bounce back and forth between anger “he shouldn’t be treating me this way” to helplessness “Why can’t he be nice to me?” This does not feel good.
It’s kind of like you’ve got this powerless, abandoned kitten on one shoulder whispering “please be nice to me” and a ferocious tiger on the other saying “you better be nice to me.” Bouncing back and forth between these two keeps you out of your power.
I want you to listen to the energy embedded in the last sentence of your question: “What am I doing that makes him act so poorly?”
Can you feel the emotion in that sentence? Self-blame? Guilt, maybe? It’s coming from weak energy.
Your first sentence felt the opposite: “What’s the right way to handle a disrespectful child?” Can you hear this one is a bit more annoyed?
It implies there is a right way and wrong way, and because you label the behavior as disrespectful, I’m guessing you are in anger.
Most people think that angry, ferocious tiger energy is you being powerful, but studies show the most powerful energy is calm, assertive energy.
In order to TEACH your child how to treat you, you’ve first got to find your calm, confident energy. Which means stepping out of blame and accepting reality without argument.
You aren’t a bad mom because your child misbehaves or is rude to you. Can you imagine a child that NEVER talks back? That ALWAYS says the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, since the day they learned to talk? That would be weird, right?
Like a little Stepford robot child. If that happened you’d still probably be writing into me, concerned that your child is behaving too well. Something must be wrong with them if they never misbehave, right?
Our thoughts create our emotional energy. Notice how you feel when you think, “He’s disrespectful.” It makes you angry and annoyed. You want to snap back, yell, give him the silent treatment, basically mirror how he is treating you.
Notice how you feel when you think, “What am I doing wrong?” “Why won’t he be nice to me?” “I should have this figured out by now”. Those thoughts make you feel weak. You give in, letting him have the power to treat you poorly.
You want to find a thought that gives you the feeling of calm confidence. The word that helped me was “teach.” I can teach her to be kind by my actions. I will teach her how to treat me.
Every time my daughter did something I didn’t like, I would treat it as a lesson. “When you ignore me, I feel unimportant. What I’d like to hear you say, is ‘Ok, Mom.'”Most kids don’t like learning the same lesson every day (especially strong-willed ones). This “instruction” motivated her to adopt the behavior I was looking for because being told the same thing every day became annoying.
When she talked back, I would remind myself, “She is asking me for more guidance”.In order to curb your son’s behavior, Ava, find a thought that gives you the feeling of calm, confidence. “I know what to do here” is a good one. Think it often and see if it helps YOU change YOUR behavior, giving you the change in your son’s behavior that you are looking for.
Supermom Kryptonite – The Dictator and The Wild Child
I learned about this concept from my first life coach teacher, Martha Beck. I obsessively read every book she wrote and learned about “the dictator and the wild child” in her book, The Four Day Win: End Your Diet War and Achieve Thinner Peace.
When people are dieting to lose weight, they very often create two opposing characters she calls The Dictator and The Wild Child. The dictator is the voice in our heads that only allows us to eat spinach and quinoa. We must do everything right, eat everything right, and never falter.
Most people can’t keep up with this perfectionistic discipline, nor do they want to. So they then create this wild child who rebels against the dictator and says, “Screw you! I can do what I want, eat what I want, anytime I want.”
Bouncing back and forth between these two extremes is exhausting and a huge energy drain. You decide you want to eat healthily, but then you rebel against yourself to the point where it feels like you are eating behind your own back.
These two extremes can play out in parenting as well as weight loss. We develop this idealized version of ourselves; the perfectly balanced mom who does everything right.
Naturally, we can’t keep up with these perfectionistic expectations. We yell, we say things we regret, we snap at our kids, never understanding it’s because our expectations for ourselves aren’t allowing for imperfection.
If this sounds familiar, the fix isn’t more will power and discipline nor is it to beat yourself up. We want to LISTEN to the wild child. What does it need more of? What would feel joyful and playful to the wild child?
This isn’t an “angel and devil on the shoulders” scenario. Maintaining perfection isn’t part of being human so that goal will always create rebellion. Find some middle ground by asking “What emotion do I want to feel, no matter how my kid behaves?”
Supermom Power Boost – Becoming the watcher
A friend of mine described it best. She was in a hospital bed, having a severe allergic reaction to a medication. Her body was in anaphylactic shock and her brain was in psychosis.
As she lay there, she became aware of her body shutting down and her brain was spinning in crazy directions. Very calmly, she had the thought, “There’s a third thing”. My body is freaking out. My brain is in crazy town. But there’s a third thing. This part of me that can OBSERVE the other two things without attachment is very calm.
You don’t have to be in a life-threatening situation to become the watcher of your brain, we do it on every life coaching call.
When you become the watcher of your mind, you detach from the wild child and the dictator. You aren’t either one of those. You are the person who can observe them, watch them talk, argue, and fight but with detachment. It’s like being a scientist, just observing with curiosity, not buying into any story.
Learning to become the watcher of your brain and body is key to a peaceful, engaged life.
This is what meditation is all about. From the watcher position, you get to choose how to react when your kid talks back, what goals you want to pursue, whether you want to eat that candy or not.
Everything you want in life begins with becoming the watcher. Meditation, journal writing, life coaching, mindfulness all help develop this skill.
Quote of the day –“Stepping back from the Dictator and the Wild Child and becoming the Watcher is like thinking you’ve been stuck on a railroad track, able to move only backward and forward, and discovering that you had the capacity to fly all along.” Martha Beck