For many dads, buried deep beneath the joys and day-to-day responsibilities of being a parent is the fear of losing the respect of someone they love. More often than not, that of their family. No one wants to feel disappointment and resentment emanating from a child or spouse or to feel ignored or dismissed by one’s own family. Sure, a mild disrespectful phase is common when kids are in their teens, but even young children can lose respect for a parent when it comes down to it.
Regardless of how respect was lost, it can be hard to get back. And commanding respect is never the answer.
“If you have to insist on respect, you probably don’t have it,” says Oakland, California, psychologist Erica Reischer, Ph.D., author of What Great Parents Do: Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive. “By then, it’s too late.”
The sources of diminished family esteem and subsequent disrespect in marriage can be unsurprising (being caught cheating, chronic substance misuse, or abusive behavior) or more subtle (issues that arise from years of little let-downs or demeaning behavior toward your family).
“I’ve seen fathers lose the respect of their families for a variety of reasons,” says Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Troy, Michigan. “But often, it can be boiled down to a lack of awareness of their own boundaries or limits or a lack of awareness for the boundaries and requests of others.”
Dads who don’t respect the privacy or opinions of other family members, for example, might lose their respect, Krawiec says. A dad who feels like everyone is living in “his” house might routinely barge into rooms without knocking or take jokes farther than is comfortable for the targets of them. Dads might put kids off by being inappropriately affectionate or, on the flip-side, hostile or cold with them. Intolerance, whether racist, homophobic, or in light of differing political views, can also incite disrespect from family.
The crux of the matter, however, is that parents who complain about kids being disrespectful often treat their kids with disrespect, says John Petersen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in South Bend, Indiana. And they might not realize it. It’s also common for fathers, particularly among those with more traditional or conservative values, to express that they feel “disrespected,” rather than acknowledge that they feel hurt or vulnerable, he says.
Sharing vulnerability can be difficult for more traditional fathers but can benefit family relationships, Petersen continues.
“It can be very moving,” he says. “Children, by and large, are extremely cooperative as long as the relationship is respectful. But when you demand respect from a position of authority, you get respect for power, not the kind of respect we want as parents.”
If you’ve been a parent for any length of time, you know your kids are constantly observing your interactions with them, your partner, and the world at large, says Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day. So it’s important to cultivate a climate of respect in your family. Here’s what experts say helps to do that.
Respect Your Partner
You might be tempted to think your kids will only notice how you treat them and not how you treat their other parent. But that isn’t true.
“Parents tend to forget that children are listening and taking in everything they do and say,” Newman says. “Kids lose respect if you belittle their mother. They’re very aware and absorb their parents’ attitude toward their partners.”
It’s a bit of a no-brainer that bad-mouthing your partner to your kids isn’t respectful. But children also will pick up on chronic, low-level irritation you might feel toward your partner.
“It’s hard to control those feelings, but worth doing,” Newman says. “If you’re chronically irritated with your spouse, that builds a collective impression for your kids, and it sabotages your partner in a way that’s probably not as subtle as you think.”
Dismissing others’ views and input as unimportant or unnecessary also helps create a culture of disrespect, Krawiec says. When dads value things their partners value, on the other hand, that fosters mutual respect.
“The key thing parents need to have is a unified front that involves respecting and supporting each other, in group situations and during difficult times,” Newman says.
On a more practical level, ask yourself how you model respect for your kids. When your wife comes home with groceries, do you jump up to help her, or at least ask whether she needs help? If not, don’t be surprised if, when they’re older, your kids ignore you when you come home with bags.
If your spouse isn’t respectful toward you, don’t dismiss it as a problem between you and your partner that doesn’t affect your children. A partner who accepts maltreatment from a spouse is modeling enabling, passive behavior and how to be a doormat to their children, which is equally harmful, says Nancy Irwin, Psy.D., a psychologist in Los Angeles. Have a frank talk with him or her that the negative treatment is harming your kids and if necessary, suggest he or she should see a therapist for help managing anger in a healthy way.
Share Appropriately With Your Kids
Some parents might try to cope with their relationship issues by asking their kids for advice or to listen to them vent. Even if kids are dating, themselves, and seem mature, this is never okay. It’s hard and might feel unfair that you’re expected to be superhuman, but for the sake of your kids, resist the urge to confide in them about your troubles. Unloading on children about your partner’s infidelity, your divorce terms, money troubles, or addiction issues puts an emotional burden on them that they’re unequipped to handle. You’re their safety net, and they need to feel you’re in control for them to feel safe.
It can be especially hard to keep interaction with kids appropriate if you’re struggling with substance misuse yourself, as you won’t be operating with the clarity of a sober person some of the time.
“Addicts become very selfish and put their ‘fix’ before their most precious relationships many times,” Irwin says. “Kids cannot understand this. All they know is that they’re being neglected, abused, ignored, uncared for.”
Let Kids Make Decisions and Be Independent
We tend to “overparent” these days, Petersen notes. People have fewer children and have them later in life when they have more resources, and generally put much more energy into parenting than in previous generations, he says.
“The downside of that is that parents think their job is to make children happy all the time,” he says. “But children who are indulged will expect, then demand it. The more we cater to their comfort, the more disrespectful they become.”
Part of this means avoiding “undue service” to children, or doing things for them that they can do themselves. Petersen likens it to adults on the job: It’s gratifying and feels meaningful to contribute. When someone takes that away from us, it feels diminishing and implies we’re incompetent.
Even toddlers should be given choices that help them develop confidence and critical thinking skills, Newman says. Let them make decisions about what they want to eat (even if it’s just whether they want cream cheese or peanut butter on their jelly sandwich), or let them wear what they want to, even if it’s a cape over their clothes or mismatched socks. For their own well-being out in the world, they’ll need to be able to make decisions and be allowed to argue as they get older. They’ll resent you when they realize they’ve been crippled in the decision-making process, she says.
That’s not to say that kids should be given carte blanche over every family decision. Reischer says she sees a lot of families unnecessarily bending over backward putting everything — such as where to go to dinner or where to go on vacation — to a vote, which isn’t helpful either.
“You do want to honor those preferences, but do use your authority and power in the relationship to make choices in a way that feels fair and reasonable,” Reischer says. “You can say, ‘No, we’re not going to Disneyland on vacation, and here’s why.’ ”
Let’s be real: It can be excruciating at times listening to a 3-year-old tell you a story or try to articulate why the toy that brought them unabashed joy for a solid week suddenly infuriates them on sight. It takes a lot of patience, but listening to children is a crucial part of fostering respect. Look them in the eye, on their level, and show them when they’re young that you want to hear what they have to say, and they’ll be more likely to return the favor when they’re older.
When little kids are being difficult, parents need to step back and remind themselves that although it might feel like your child is out to get you, they’re just trying to figure out the world, Newman says.
Discipline With Love and Consistency
Kids need parents who make rules but are loving, Newman says. If they did something that requires correction, let them know you don’t like the act but that you love them. Keep criticism to specific things, not your child.
“You cannot spew forth constant negativity if you want kids to respect and love you,” Newman says.
Effective discipline that fosters respect requires consistency, so make sure you say what you mean and do what you say. If a child who is told no has a tantrum in public until you cave, they learn that screaming displays are an effective way to get what they want. Likewise, if you threaten to take an older child’s phone away and then don’t do it, you’re teaching them that they can’t trust what you say and don’t have to listen.
Model Respect to Kids as Well as Your Spouse
A helpful way to think of respect for you as a parent is to strive for cooperation, not compliance, Petersen says. When you’re ready to head out with your kid to do errands, for example, it can be trying to say calmly, “I know you’re having fun with your toy right now, so take another minute to play with it, but then we have to go pick up your sister at practice,” instead of, “Put it down and let’s go, now.” But the payoff is a kid who knows how to show respect for others.
As with conflicts in romantic relationships, avoid “all or nothing” language with kids, too. Rather than criticize them that they “always” leave their toys strewn all over the living room, say, “We seem to have trouble keeping this room tidy. What can we do about that?” Kids want to feel like their parents are on the same team.
Dads with conservative or traditional views about gender roles might be disrespectful when their sons express feelings, such as sadness or fear, that the dad perceives as weak or feminine, Reischer says.
“Those types of dads might say things like, ‘Buck up’ or ‘Stop crying,’ and the child can feel put down,” she says. “That can cause all sorts of problems, making it difficult for boys to share and discuss feelings and even feel their feelings, which is so important in developing emotional intelligence.”
Older children will typically test boundaries, sometimes with disrespect, to see what you’ll do. Don’t take the bait. If your child is being disrespectful, you can say something like, “Hey, I don’t like how you’re talking to me. If you want to talk later and revisit this idea, I’m happy to do that,” Reischer says. Politely disengage and try again later.
Admit and Apologize When Mistakes Are Made
You’re going to make mistakes. All parents do. You can mitigate the damage to your family relationships with an apology that makes them feel heard and understood, Petersen says.
First, ask your family what the experience was like for them. Listen, honor their emotional experience and summarize what they expressed, he suggests. Even if you see the situation differently, talk about what you’re prepared to do so it doesn’t happen again.
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