Question: My 14-year-old son is very disrespectful to my husband and me, and we don’t know what to do about it.
We tell him to get home before dark, but he is often late, and then we wait, worry and sometimes get close to calling the police. And so what happens when he does come home? We have a big argument.
What can we do to help our child? Can you help us?
Answer: Your son should, of course, come in before dark, not because you say so, but because it is his responsibility and because you would worry about him if he didn’t come home when he promised. But don’t argue about it. Just tell him that he has to be home on time if he wants to go out next time — and that this is his choice, not yours.
His disrespect is part of a bigger issue. Your son longs to be independent because the young always do when they are in that rambunctious stretch between 18 months and 33 months and again when they hit puberty, somewhere between 13 and 16. Adolescence is the time when new hormones, a new ability to think in abstractions and a new need to pull away from their parents make boys and girls so eager to spread their wings.
It is nature, not nurture, that makes children seek independence. And as you’re beginning to discover, children obey nature much better than they obey their parents.
Fortunately, nature is wise. She knows that the more independent a child becomes, the stronger he will be, because he has found out how much he can do and how far he can go. This not only makes him feel brave and self-confident, it helps him define himself at a time when he is being challenged more than he has before. He is growing physically, mentally, emotionally and even morally — and therein lies the rub. If your son is growing faster in one area and slower in another, his self-confidence will fade, and he will be harder to discipline.
Or maybe your son is as self-focused as other young teens and more sensitive than you know. A cross look, a yawn or a mild tease can devastate youngsters at this age. Instead of saying so, however, he’ll keep his hurt feelings to himself, then growl at you two hours later. And you’ll never know why.
Your son may also be acting up because your discipline hasn’t kept up with his growth. A child hates to be corrected when his parents use the same words and same tone of voice they used when correcting him a year ago. He wants you to react to him at the age he is today. Although most parents instinctively use discipline that grows with the child, they often pull him back when his independence inspires more adventurous behavior than they’d like. This only makes the problem worse. If you’re making that mistake, you’ll find that it’s much easier to march to your son’s drummer rather than your own.
He won’t even argue with you too much, as long as you listen to his rants, consider his reasons and sympathize with him when you have to say no. These are all signs that you know that your respect is as important to him as his respect is to you. If you don’t listen and consider and sympathize, he won’t hear a word you say, because anger will block his ears and cause him to make the same argument again and again, only louder and more furious each time. This doesn’t accomplish anything and is bound to worsen your relationship.
Your child not only needs your respect, he needs you to encourage his dreams, no matter how wacky they are, and to sympathize with him when things go wrong, rather than fix them or tell him what he should have done. He also needs you to deal with his independence the same way you dealt with it when he was little, but at his level now. Young teens and young children are a lot alike.
Now is the time to lower your expectations, look the other way as often as you can, give as few orders as possible (but stick to the ones you give), pay more attention to your son’s good behavior than his bad, and give twice as many smiles as you get.
More from The Washington Post
Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Thursday at noon.For more of Kelly’s past columns about parenting, go to washingtonpost.com/advice.