It’s Not All Mary Poppins

expecting respect — teen version

A recent online conversation about teens provoked an email exchange, which seemed to me to be the essence of a pretty good post. This one’s about teens, not toddlers, but those of you with toddlers will soon see the parallels between teen and toddler behaviours! Anyone with teens certainly sees them. πŸ™‚

And thus the parenting response is quite similar in principal, though different in execution.

In the conversation, one woman had said she didn’t sweat the small stuff, that she ignores the eye-rolling, sarcasm, and sneering. My hackles went up instantly.

The principle — don’t sweat the small stuff — is sound. The thing is, eye-rolling is an expression not only of disrespect, but of contempt. In studies done of marriages, certain behaviours are strong indicators of divorce within a predictable time-frame. Habitual expressions of contempt, which include sneering, sarcasm, and eye-rolling, are among them. John Gottman, the mathematician-turned-psychologist whose research is the cornerstone of this idea, comments that “respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them.”

Teenagers may try to sneer, mock, and roll their eyes all the time, but they’re not “small stuff”, and I strongly believe you should sweat them.

My kids got my iciest rage if they ever sneered or rolled their eyes at me. “You may be angry at me, but you WILL express that anger respectfully, just as I am respectful with you.”

People have to learn that they can control their behaviour even when their emotions are involved. And that learning doesn’t come without lots of practice. I expect it of toddlers, in a rudimentary way, I expect it of teens, in a much more sophisticated (though not fully adult) way.

As I expect it of myself. Only seems reasonable.

My oldest might have sneered or rolled her eyes twice. The younger two learned from their big sister’s example, and, though my youngest has come close to the edge with sneering, I don’t think she’s ever once rolled her eyes at me. She has also been known to apologize for mood swings — without being asked!

While I have told her she can’t take out her bad mood on me, and she can certainly apologize for mood-driven bad behaviour, I don’t expect an apology for the mood itself, because mood swings? They’re small stuff. You don’t sweat ’em. (Like with the todders, “you can be angry, but you may not…”)

“Small stuff”also includes door-slamming, petulant tears, protestations of eternal misery, stomping up stairs, pouting…

I endeavour to help them put the moods in perspective, but very rarely do I attempt to do that WHILE the mood is ongoing… Expecting a teen to dissect/analyze an emotion while it’s being experienced is the very definition of “exercise in futility”. Wait. I lie. I did that with my FIRST child.

Live and learn.

I think the most important thing that I’ve learned re: teens is to observe the moods without being drawn into them. To let them roll over and through, but don’t get involved with the child until it’s over. My primary role during the negative mood is to ensure that its expression is respectful, and that innocent bystanders are not used as whipping-boys. “Respectful” doesn’t necessarily include calm or reasonable. They are allowed their emotions. It does mean “not aggressively rude”.

And when the teen is calm, when their rationality has asserted itself over the (probably hormonally-enhanced) emotions, THEN you can have the talk. (Which, with teens, particularly boys, might be three minutes at most. You learn to be CONCISE, with teens.) You can debrief, they can learn that you still love them… and that they have the power to control their own responses. That emotions are signposts, not roads, that they give us a certain amount of valuable information, but it’s the brain that gets us there.

And that if they roll their eyes at the momma, they risk losing one.

May 21, 2010 - Posted by | aggression, manners, my kids, parenting, power struggle, socializing, tantrums | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Please email this to me once a year. I’m 8 years away from having a teen. It might sink in by then.

    Oh, dear. I’d love to help, but I have such a dreadful memory. Perhaps you could just bookmark this page?

    Comment by ClumberKim | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. i agree! i have a six year old, but….the drama! who knew!?

    Your mother, I’m betting! πŸ˜€ Get her accustomed to the idea of controlling the drama NOW, when she still thinks Mommy is the Bestest, so that when she’s a teen, and Mother is Just a Know-Nothing Embarrassment, you’ll be reviewing, not introducing, the concept.

    Comment by Dana | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. Ok- but what if the teen IS rolling her eyes at you? I know with my pre-schooler I send her to the time out step (or to her room) until she can act civilly, how do you do that with a teen (when their room is one of their favorite places to be!)? When you correct her and tell her she may not act that way towards you- what to do if she keeps doing it?

    What you do is exactly what you’re doing. Get the idea that disrespectful behaviour is NOT acceptable firmly established now, when she’s young and impressionable, and you stand a much, much better chance of being respected (with the odd firm reminder) when she’s a teen.

    My teens often report being shocked, truly shocked, at how their peers speak to their parents — and the parents seem unsurprised! Don’t even repudiate the rudeness!! That too, is shocking to them. By this alone, I know I did something right.

    Candace’s comment, below, gives an excellent specific example of how to continue that training into the later childhood/early teen years.

    Comment by Jenn | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  4. Jenn, you start removing privileges. That’s what I’ve done, consistently, with my now 10-year-old daughter (who is more teenager than her 13-year-old brother, I swear) and we haven’t had an eye-roll in years. Sophie’s currency was television. Threaten removal and she’s angelic. But really, it’s the consistent discussion as to why eye-rolling (and in our family, sighing, door slamming, and glaring) is not acceptable in your home. Reinforce, every time, that it’s not acceptable to treat each other that way, that you don’t treat her that way, and that people should be kind to one another. And bad moods are totally acceptable, as Mary says, but she is not permitted to take her bad mood out on you.

    Consistency is the secret weapon of parenting.

    p.s. Mary, that ‘on-line’ discussion sounds oddly familiar! πŸ˜‰ Thought you might recognize it!

    Agreed. You have your family standards. Our family turned a deaf ear to door slamming (as a borderline, but acceptable expression of anger rather than disrespect), but absolutely did not allow eye-rolling, sneering or sarcasm. You establish your boundaries, you explain why whatever it is is not acceptable. And then you deal with it, every time. By the time they’re teens, the idea that mom and dad are boss is so firmly part of their psyche that you have an enormous built-in ally, right inside their head. Yes, they’ll still push the envelope, but, if you’ve established constructive ways to handle conflict right from the get-go, they can usually manage to stay within them — with a little firm and constructive assistance from their parents.

    Comment by Candace | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  5. I appreciate what you say about the need for mutual respect, and also that you acknowledge that a teenager (and everyone!) has a right to their emotions. In my teenage years, I was often treated to the “It’s just your hormones” comment when I was upset, which made me feel incredibly small and worthless. Of course the teenage reactions are affected by the hormones, but that doesn’t mean the emotions aren’t actually troubling, or that there isn’t a situation happening where some adult guidance could be welcomed.

    I’ve certainly explained the idea of hormones to my kids (the boy, too, because he has ’em as well), but not in a dismissive way. You have to understand what’s affecting you, so as to exert some control over it. I have explained that hormones can exaggerate feelings, that sometimes the best response is to wait it out and/or distract yourself, and try not to give the emotions too much space in your head. I always stress that, no matter what their feelings, they are accountable for their words and actions. But I’ve done that since they were toddlers — that’s nothing new! But is it harder when the hormones are surging? Absolutely, and we all know that!

    Comment by becka | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  6. You need to write a book. (Or perhaps, more correctly, *I* need you to write a book.)

    Hee. Thank you.

    Comment by Lisa | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  7. The British military calls that stuff where nothing is actually said but you get the “up yours” message anyhow Dumb Insolence and you can get courtmartialed for it.

    Ha! My grandfather (who was in the RAF (Royal Air Force) before and during the second world war) used that expression to his grandkids. I knew what actions constituted Dumb Insolence, and I knew it was absolutely NOT ALLOWED. Once out of my childhood, I forgot all about it. Only now, thirty or more years later, now that I see it written, do I realize that it’s ‘dumb’ as in ‘mute’, or ‘silent’, not (as I thought throughout my entire childhood) ‘dumb’ as in ‘stupid’. Hee.

    Comment by jwg | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  8. That’s interesting about the eye-rolling relationship stuff. It sounds right to me. When my husband and I hear couples bickering and being insulting at each other we think “uh oh” and we feel sorry for them…

    It sounds right to me, too, and when I see couples like that I always wonder how long they’ll last.

    Comment by ifbyyes | May 21, 2010 | Reply

  9. My firstborn is only 6 year old, so still a bit to go until the teenage years. Rolling your eyes at me in disrespect can send you off to the corner, no problems. It’s funny, because some of this “small stuff” has earned my daughter 6 minutes sitting on the books in the corner of a room. It’s been ages and ages since we used that. Well, it actually took about 30 minutes until she did those 6 minutes. And she apologised by herself. And if she’s moody, I let her be, and again she would apologise for it. But then, so do I. is it acceptable to admit that Mommies can get moody too sometimes? I totally apologise to my children if I was moody, there are times i just can’t control it.

    So hoping that teenage years would be easier in my house, then other houses πŸ™‚ I know my 6 year old daughter gets it, because the other day she was lecturing the 3 year old daughter about not doing somethign or she’ll end up with a sitting in a corner punishment. And it worked. I dind’t even have to get involved in that.

    If you start establishing the idea of treating each other respectfully, even during moods and in times of conflict, you are well on your way to having a calmer adolescent than some! Good teens are not (solely!) the result of luck; they are the result of years and years of consistent, diligent effort. While there’s always an element of luck, that bit of unpredictability, there is also a lot of hard work!

    What I hammer on with my kids, over and over again is this: Emotions are emotions. You can’t control the moodiness itself, but you can control how you respond to it. For myself these days, I’m less likely to get weepy than I am to be irritable. Something that I would normally ignore or only be mildly annoyed by briefly, becomes INSUFFERABLE. Even so, I work very hard not to express my irritation harshly. In fact, if I’m sure it’s hormonal, and that it wouldn’t bother me any other day of the month, I endeavour not to express it at all. If it’s a particularly rough day, I will warn my family I’m unusually irritable, not so that they can walk on eggshells around me, but so that they’ll cut me a little slack. I try to treat their moods and moodiness with the same respect.

    Comment by Nat | May 22, 2010 | Reply

  10. My comment sounds like I have it all figured, and I don’t. Far from it.

    You were noting a positive result of diligent effort. Good for you! We parents are allowed to say ‘Hey! It looks like I did this right!’ If you’re seeing positive results, you’ve probably been doing something right. πŸ™‚

    Comment by Nat | May 22, 2010 | Reply

  11. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and finding it very interesting – I don’t have children yet but I’ve worked as an au pair and babysitter sometimes and I can see some of the places where your advice would have helped. I was wondering what you make of this article, which I read today and which seems almost the polar opposite approach to childcare than the one you take.

    I can’t help thinking that your way makes much more sense and also leaves the parent feeling far less guilty!

    Oh, goodness. Every so often, some expert or other will pop up saying something like this, speaking in grand, sweeping absolutes about how what we’re all doing is screwing our kids up forever. While there are elements of his philosophy that are good, sound parenting principles, a lot of it is nonsense, designed to produce selfish, inconsiderate adults who demand the things they feel entitled to instead of working to earn them. He sounds like a genuinely nice man, but what he’s saying would (if taken to heart) make any parent feel inadequate and guilty.

    I also note that his children are not yet ten years old…

    Comment by May | May 22, 2010 | Reply

  12. I’d be cautious, though, about relying on removing privileges (#4 above). That only works as long as the child gives it the power to work–as soon as the child says, “Fine, take it away; I don’t care,” the threat no longer has any power.

    As with any parenting tool, removing privileges can be over-used. If it’s your constant and only strategy, it will probably backfire as you describe sooner or later. Used wisely, however, it can be very effective.

    Comment by Meg | May 22, 2010 | Reply

  13. @May – I’m all about the attachment parenting, which is what that article focuses on, albeit an extreme version. However, attachment parenting is NOT contradictory to Mary’s methods. Attachment parenting is about being loving, supportive, and child-centred. You should not hit your child, or criticize your child. You should ignore minor naughtiness, such as a one year old messing with his food, or a two year old imitating a bad word. This is a pick-your-battles approach which prevents constant scolding from the parent. However, that does not mean that you shouldn’t establish firm boundaries.

    So much of attachment parenting is about respecting your child that it only makes SENSE to expect your child to respect you back. There’s a world of difference between teaching them that they are beloved and worthwhile, and teaching them that the world revolves around them. One is very important… the other is totally messed u.

    Oliver James is… well, a radio personality… that makes him a bit extreme. For example, most child psychologists agree that the naughty step is fine, when used appropriately. Unfortunately, parents tend to use punishment as a way to vent their frustrations, and put their kids on the step for simply being annoying, instead of crossing established boundaries.

    As for routines, well, that mostly means tiny babies. No one should let a newborn scream hungrily for an hour because “it’s not time for him to eat yet”. Babies need what they need and crying is the only tool in their toolbox for telling us so. However, small children thrive off of a regular routine. They LIKE knowing what is going to happen next. It helps them sort through their day.

    A good attachment parenting book that I can recommend is The Parent/Baby Game, by Sue Jenner. It takes you through attachment psychology without proposing extremes.

    What a lovely and thoughtful comment! I don’t have much to add except that to note you have the balance of respect and boundaries well thought out, in a way too often not achieved by attachment parents. Though I was unfamiliar with the term at the time, I used many of the principles of attachment parenting with my own children. When I finally did some reading on it, I discovered I was a 90% attachment parent. I didn’t know that for years, though, because all the attachment families I knew personally were a mess: rude, demanding, uncontrolled kids who ate what and when, who never slept, who were disrespectful of their parents and other children, and the poor parents who wearily accepted this all mayhem because they couldn’t see a way to prevent it that would be true to their principles.

    I agree with you: the principles of attachment parenting do not preclude setting boundaries, expecting respect, and being the authority in your home. Kids thrive in a reliable, stable environment, but are woefully poor at creating one for themselves!

    Comment by ifbyyes | May 24, 2010 | Reply

    • Oh, and I meant to add – since the point of this article is about how contempt destroys the bond between parent and child, this again reinforces the value of Mary’s technique. All Child Psychologists will tell you that parents need to treat their kids with love and respect, because contempt – hitting, ignoring needs, rolling your eyes – ruins the bond between you and your child. But it goes both ways!

      Comment by ifbyyes | May 24, 2010 | Reply

  14. My girls are 14 and almost 13! I really enjoy reading your advice when talking about your teens. I have definitely given my “iciest rage” to their disrespectful behaviour. It is rare so I hope I am doing something right.

    I also cringe sometimes when I hear how some teen girls speak to their parents (usually Mom). My oldest knows that it is disrespectful. Thank goodness!

    My biggest problem right now is that my 14 year old doesn’t tell me much. She claims that it’s because I lecture her too often…and here I thought I was following her lead and using her friends’ poor decisions as a learning tool! I really don’t know what the heck I am doing half the time.

    One thing I’ve learned over my years of parenting teens is to not take their analysis of their behaviour too seriously. I mean, yes, of course you listen, and listen respectfully. What you are learning is their perspective. Most of the time, it’s a sincere perspective.

    But is it accurate? Hmmm…

    In a situation like this, I’d probably ask for an example of a recent time you’d done that. Sincerely, not in a challenging way. If she says, “Oh, I don’t know, mom! You do it all the time!” or some such, you can ignore the criticism. She may honestly feel like that’s what you’re doing, but if she can’t think of an example off the top of her head, it’s not something you do often. Because if it were a recurrent event, be sure she’d remember!

    If she thinks of an example, and you disagree with her interpretation, keep that to yourself for now. Just listen to her, interject things that show you’re hearing her, and leave it be. It is enough that she feels heard. And you may find, when you’ve had a chance to think it over, that she has a point. If you’re quite sure she doesn’t, me, I still probably wouldn’t try to convince her otherwise. It’s what she believes, and all your rational arguments are only likely to annoy her, and unlikely to change her feelings or her behaviour.

    You can also ask yourself if what you want to know is necessary. Teens value their privacy. Parents fear the awful secrets that might be hidden behind that refusal to communicate, and occasionally those fears are justified, but generally, if you have a decent, respectful teen (which it seems you do), what you’re seeing is just normal pulling-away. She isn’t hiding anything ghastly, she’s just moving from the openness of childhood to the spaces of adulthood. It can be painful for the parent, particularly if you’ve been close before, but it’s normal. If you want communication to continue, don’t pursue too hard. Find out the necessary stuff (where she’ll be, with whom, when, phone numbers and addresses), and let her tell you the other stuff. I will confess that this was a VERY difficult lesson for me, and you’re hearing the mother of my third child here, not the mother of my first!!

    I often use questions to draw out information. “You seem preoccupied. Is there something bothering you?” If I get a ‘no’, I’ll accept it with a caveat. “Okay, but if you do decide you need to talk, you know I’ll listen.” And sometimes the caveat has a directive, “Okay, but if you’re going to continue to be grumpy, go to your room till you can be polite.”

    Doing stuff together is a good way to get the conversation flowing. Bake cookies, go for a walk or a drive, and don’t try to make conversation, just let it happen, and listen.

    Comment by Marci | May 24, 2010 | Reply

  15. The 6-year-olds are making their first real stabs at this sort of behaviour right now, and it is NOT GOING OVER WELL with me. Even the simple “aw” after hearing something that she doesn’t want to hear makes me nuts. I was giving her a talk this morning about saying *in actual words* that something is disappointing instead of using that irritating noise. SIGH. This isn’t going to get easier for a while, is it? How disappointing.

    Comment by kittenpie | May 27, 2010 | Reply

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