Teen Respect: Is it Expected or Earned?

Teen Respect: Is it Expected or Earned?

Respect is almost a dirty word in conversations with teens. Just try to start a conversation about it with your teen daughter and watch the epic eye roll as the word crosses your lips. Why is this the case? There could be many reasons – misunderstanding of the word, negative or punitive connotations, and the general aversion that most teens have to conversations about attitude. Unfortunately respect is an issue which nearly every teen parent deals with, and a discovery which every teen will make for herself. Respect, or the lack thereof, is a root cause of a multitude of problems, including defiance, disobedience, dishonesty, back-talk, and various other forms of acting out.

When your teen inevitably shows you a lack of respect at some point in their development, it may drive you to question the true nature of respect. Certainly your teen owes you respect, right? Surely it should exist naturally as part of the parent/child relationship. Especially when your teen is being blatantly disrespectful it can seem ridiculous that you should need to earn it from them. But that is an age-old question for parents and teenagers alike – Is respect expected or earned?

Why Teens Show Disrespect

First it’s important to understand just why teens struggle so much with respect. Nearly every teen will struggle with respect at some point. Troubled teen girls may show lack of respect for their parents, other authority figures, and especially themselves. Why?

It stems from two places: lack of understanding and self-defense.

Respect is the understanding that people matter, as do their opinions, wishes, and choices. Respect means valuing a person on principle. Many teens fail to understand this concept, whether because they are developmentally unable to fully comprehend individual value, or because they’ve never felt or been shown true respect for themselves. Do they know what respect looks like? Do they have a clear example of a respectful relationship in their own home? It’s very difficult for teens to show respect when they don’t even respect their own self as being valuable.

When you experience your daughter’s disrespect towards you, it may be coming from a place of self-defense or insecurity. It’s important to remember that teenagers, particularly girls, are going through some unpredictable and frustrating changes. One doctor and adolescent therapist urges parents to remember that your daughter is undergoing confusing development, and they don’t always understand or realize it: “You expect the adolescent to be, feel and act like you, an adult, while he or she is trying to figure out what being an adult means.” They need time to discover adulthood, and when they feel you’re judging, pestering, or otherwise intruding when they need privacy and don’t have answers, they will lash out with disrespect. The disrespect has less to do with how they feel about you and more to do with how they feel about themselves at the current moment.

So Is Respect Earned or Expected?

Back to the issue at hand – how do you approach the issue of respect with your teenage daughter? Do you carefully earn her respect, or do you expect respect from her? Simply put – both. Most psychologists and adolescent behaviorists believe that raising a teenager who respects themselves and others takes both high expectations as well as effort to earn the teen’s respect yourself.

Showing & Earning Respect

Remember how your teen is trying to be an adult? She may think she deserves a lot of adult privileges like complete freedom, vehicle access, and impervious privacy. Much of this is because she sees other adults with these benefits and privileges. She has learned what it looks like to be an adult by watching you and others. This is also how she will learn what respect looks like. Teen development expert Dr. Robyn Silverman urges parents to model respect for themselves, their teens, and other people so that teens can begin to set expectations for themselves and others. This may include honoring the personal choices of others, allowing them privacy when requested, and listening closely to their thoughts and feelings.

Showing respect to and in front of your teen is one thing, while actually earning their respect is another. It’s a process that will be definitely disrupted by their resistance and your frustration, but it’s well worth the effort. It may seem counterintuitive to some parents, but the most critical part of earning your teen’s respect is to resist falling into the “friend trap.” Psychologists everywhere agree that the fastest route to disrespect is to try to be your daughter’s friend, and that respect can only be earned when you are firmly rooted in the “parent” category. You may not always be the most popular person in their life, but by maintaining power and creating consequences for your teen will earn their respect over time. By consistently asserting your concern for their well-being, especially when you’re at odds, you show your teen daughter that you value her as a person. According to psychologist John Petersen, the key is to value a person over power. So while it’s essential to maintain power in the relationship as a parent, your daughter should know that your love and respect for her as a person is greater than the value you place on that power. He urges parents to do this by pursuing cooperation over compliance (which breeds resentment), and separating your daughter from her actions. In this way you can earn the respect of your teen in a permanent and meaningful way.

Expecting Respect

If you haven’t earned the respect of your teen daughter, your expectations aren’t likely to get you far. However, when you couple high expectations with efforts to earn your daughter’s respect the effects are impressive. In one teen psychology publication, psychologist William Doherty asserts that parents absolutely DO have a right to respect and to expect less of teenagers is dangerous. Responding your your teen’s disrespect with ambivalence or a blind eye is teaching and reinforcing disrespect. Instead Doherty (and Dr. Silverman agrees), urges parents to challenge disrespect when they see or hear it. It may seem extreme, but you must adopt a zero tolerance policy with a big picture frame of mind. With consistency of respectful expectations, your daughter will quickly learn what respect and disrespect look like, and exactly how they are expected to act as a respectful individual.

When Your Teen is Showing Respect She Will

  • Listen when you speak to her, ideally with eye contact
  • Answer you clearly and honestly
  • Refrain from arguing or “talking back” when she doesn’t like your decisions
  • Learn from corrections and consequences you have given
  • Trust you, even when she doesn’t fully understand
  • Know and acknowledge that you have feelings too

So What Do I Do Now?

The very first step is to begin showing respect to your daughter, even when she is disrespectful and unappreciative. Allow her reasonable privacy, choices, and freedom while maintaining power and position as her parent. When consequences are needed, apply them firmly and attach them naturally to respect for themselves and others. As your daughter begins to respond to your efforts to earn her respect, you should open up the lines of communication about respect and set high expectations for her.

Ways to Show & Model Respect

  • Verbally acknowledge feelings
  • Ask for their preferences, give choices as often as possible (“Would you like to do the dishes now or before you go to bed?”)
  • Refrain from shouting or yelling back
  • Give them space & time to cool down when they’re upset
  • Treat waiters, cashiers, and other service employees with kindness and respect to communicate to your teen that respect is for everyone and that each person has feelings and value.
  • Be conscious of criticizing your spouse, other children, family members, or people your daughter knows in her presence, as it communicates a lack of respect
  • Call out disrespect when you see it by saying immediately “That was rude.” or “That’s very disrespectful.”
  • Ask your daughter about the people she admires in her life and why.
  • Be open to criticism (when respectful) and try to respond positively
  • Admit your mistakes, apologize, and correct them – even when it’s embarrassing or seems trivial

A teen girl who respects her parents and others will develop one of the most critical tools for healthy growth and maturity – self-respect. Girls who fail to understand and implement respect for their parents and others will often fail to respect themselves and find themselves in situations of crime, self-harm, depression, and other issues which might need more serious treatment by professionals. Do your part as a parent by both earning and expecting teen respect in order to help your teen develop as a healthy, well-adjusted adolescent to adulthood.


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