Disrespectful Teen

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We are at our wits end trying to discipline our 13-yr. old son. He is VERY disrespectful...(the more I do for him - the more he disrespects us).  We thought we were disciplining him the "right way" - but no - its not working. He has gone weeks w/o the things he enjoys the most. It doesn't make a difference. HELP!


Thirteen is such a delightful age, isn't it? There is so much going on for kids at thirteen: they are working on deciding who they are and what they must do to find belonging and a sense of worth both at home and with their peers (particularly with peers). Their bodies are changing, usually either too fast or not fast enough. The prefrontal cortex of their brains has not developed fully yet, which means the "executive functions" like wisdom, good judgment, and setting priorities aren't working very well yet. And they need both connection to their families and the freedom to establish their own individual identity--one reason they so often argue with parents (anger is a powerful connection AND a way to feel separate). In addition, boys are likely to withdraw when angry or unhappy; they often disappear into their rooms to listen to music, or they simply leave, which can feel disrespectful and frustrating to their worried parents.

Using punishment (taking away privileges, grounding, lecturing, etc.) is rarely effective with a young man of 13. It usually invites resistance and rebellion (like "not caring" that he's lost the things that matter to him), especially since part of his developmental goal right now is individuation from you. You can't "make" your son do much of anything, but you CAN decide what you will do. Let your son know that you respect his need to establish his own identity, but that you need his cooperation around the house. Decide what you are comfortable doing for him, and don't do more than that (kids learn quickly that they can ignore chores and responsibilities because their loving parents will step in and do the job for them). Remember, effective discipline is teaching, and helps kids learn the attitudes and values that will enable them to become happy, productive adults. Punishment doesn't accomplish this important goal nor does doing too much for them.

Sit down at a calm moment for a family meeting; invite your son's suggestions about what would make it easier for him to be respectful and cooperative. (Being kind, firm, and respectful yourself is usually a good beginning; teens love to provoke an explosion.) And choose your battles: select one issue to begin working on. Set clear, reasonable boundaries and ask your son to help you decide IN ADVANCE on consequences should agreements not be followed. Then follow through with respect and dignity. I may surprise you how much more cooperation you will received when your son is involved in the decision making process.

I believe that you would find Positive Discipline for Teenagers extremely helpful. It is filled with ideas for "kind and firm parenting" the alternative to punishment and permissiveness. It is available from the Positive Discipline website or your local bookstore, and provides good, practical tools for working with adolescents. And hang in there: many, many parents find that the ages of 12 to 14 are the tough years. As kids mature and get more comfortable in their own skins, things often get easier.

Best wishes,

Cheryl L. Erwin, MA, MFT 
Certified Positive Discipline Associate


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