How to Deal with Disrespectful Teenagers

As a rule, nothing provokes parents to anger quicker than disrespect. There is something about an insolent son or daughter that upsets a parent and incites him to action—often the wrong kind of action. In this post and the ones that will follow, I’ll explore what disrespect is, how it is displayed, why teenagers might be motivated to show it, and what parents can do to help teens correct it.

Disrespect is first and foremost an attitude of the heart. It is rooted in the sins of pride and selfishness. It is a root out of which flows all manner of other sins (i.e., resentment, abusive speech, and hatred).

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3, emphasis added)

Disrespect has to do with not esteeming others more highly than ourselves. It is the belief that we are wiser, smarter, “cooler,” or otherwise better than others. Beyond this, it is not giving others the honor that they are due and, in some cases, showing contempt for them. Because it is rooted in pride, disrespect loathes humbling itself in the presence of others by treating them as if they were in any way superior. Yet, ironically enough, it selfishly longs for others to esteem itself highly.

It is vital that you try to convict (as the word for reprove in 2 Timothy 3:16 indicates) your child of these two heart issues before you attempt to help him correct his disrespectful attitudes. This is so not only because none of us are usually willing to change apart from being convicted of our need to do so, but also because the only way to really “kill the fruit” is to “kill the root.” It is just as Jesus said in Luke 6:45:  “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.”

Here is how I sometimes unpack Philippians 2:3 to convict the teens I counsel.

“Notice that you are to esteem others (not just your parents) higher than yourself. Could it be that in your heart, you don’t want them telling you what to do, so you give yourself a reason to justify your selfish desire for premature independence by reminding yourself how unworthy of your respect your parents are?”

Another obstacle you may have to overcome is the mind-set that “only people who are respectable deserve my respect.”

“But I still don’t think everybody deserves my respect,” protests your child.

“Perhaps not,” you respond, “but people in positions of authority do—especially parents.”

Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. (Ephesians 6:2-3)

Here is one way to explain this passage to your teen.

“Paul is citing the fifth of the Ten Commandments. He is reminding you that you have been commanded by God to honor your parents. The word honor means to revere, to hold in awe, to place a high value on, to venerate. As you can see, this again is a heart attitude. It is out of this internal attitude that obedience naturally and freely flows, along with all manner of gracious forms of communication. This ‘Fifth commandment’ is the first one with a two-part promise attached to it. Part one: the quality of your life will be enhanced—‘that it may be well with you.’ Part two: the quantity of your life will be extended—“and that you may live long on the earth.”

“That all sounds good” he/she says, “but you obviously don’t understand what it’s like to have you and Mom for parents! How can God expect me to honor you guys when you consistently do things that cause me to lose respect for you? You don’t always practice what you preach.”

“You are right about that,” you respond, “but did you know that the apostle Paul faced the same dilemma?”

“I don’t recall. Can you refresh my memory?”

“Sure. One day, he was escorted into a room of religious authorities (the Sanhedrin) who were about to falsely accuse him of wrongdoing. As he stood in their midst between two guards, he began speaking:  ‘Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.’ Then, someone in the counsel stood up and ordered the guards standing beside him to slug him in the mouth. Pretty hypocritical, wouldn’t you say?”


“Paul thought so too. And, he said so.”

Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3)

“At this point, Paul had this guy pegged as a first class hypocrite (a whitewashed wall). He made an accurate assignment of his personality. Then, something quite remarkable happened. Others in the room began to confront Paul as they pointed out to him that the man he had just publicly ridiculed and called a whitewashed wall had a divinely-appointed position that went along with his despicable personality.”

“But the bystanders said, ‘Do you revile God’s high priest?’”(v.4)

“As soon as Paul realized that the man whom he had just (rightly) assessed as a hypocrite, and whom he had just reviled, was the high priest, he showed contrition.”

And Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ” (Acts 23:5)

“You may be right in your assessment of our ‘personalities.’ They may be very hard to respect at times. But you cannot lose sight of the fact that God has given us a position of authority that you must honor. You must learn to salute the uniform God has given us even if you believe it is six sizes too big. There are ways for you to respectfully address the fact that we don’t fill out our uniforms as well as we should. We can talk about that later. . . ”

Next time I will suggest some other things you can do to help your disrespectful teen better understand the proud and selfish motives of his heart that generate his disrespect.  I will also offer some ideas to assist you in encouraging your child to examine his motives as a prerequisite to showing him how he can (and why he should be) more respectful.

[1] This article has been adapted from Getting a Grip: The Heart of Anger Handbook for Teens, published by Calvary Press Publishing, (800-789-8175).

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