Disrespect Vs Dysregulation

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It’s another versus post! Y’all know I love these. I see it all the time in gentle parenting groups… people asking what the gentle response might be toward disrespectful attitudes. These questions can’t be answered without first considering what disrespect from children looks like in the context of peaceful parenting. What is disrespect in the first place? I think many parents might say things like:

  • Backtalk
  • Defiance
  • Destructiveness
  • Name-calling
  • Sarcasm
  • Insults
  • Cussing
  • Refusal to cooperate
  • Crossing personal boundaries
  • Not doing what they’re told
  • Eyerolling
  • Aggression
  • Raising their voice/Yelling
  • Mocking/making fun of

Where do these reactions come from though? Having done all of these things myself at one time or another both as a child and as an adult, I can tell you exactly how I was feeling: like my own boundaries were being ignored; like I wasn’t being heard; like I was being pushed past my ability to cope; like I was having a trauma response; like I genuinely couldn’t come up with another way to communicate how terrible I was feeling; like it was the best I could do in the moment. Can you relate? Have there been times in your adult life when you said something unkind because you weren’t in a great frame of mind? Have you ever thrown or broken something in an emotional moment? Have you ever yelled or given someone the silent treatment because you were fuming mad? In any of these circumstances, were you in a state of emotional regulation? I doubt it.

I’m going to say something that’s probably going to feel wrong to a lot of people, but I don’t think anyone – adult or child – chooses disrespect outside of a state of dysregulation. And, given what we know about how children develop self-control, we have to acknowledge that children are even less able to overcome dysregulation than adults are. I’d go so far as to say that children probably don’t have the capacity to be disrespectful with intent to harm. Rather, they are lashing out with what they know will communicate the most hurt in an effort to ask for our help in the most basic way.

When we talk about disrespect, what we’re referring to is the way other people make us feel about ourselves. For a lot of adults, the intoxicating power of authority can make us forget that children are not inferior to us. When children do something that makes us feel bad, we can still achieve the presence of mind to know why they’ve done what they’ve done. And, for those of us who are peaceful parents, the response is the same as it would be in any other encounter where our children have behaved in a way that defies our family values: we extend compassion and grace. See, kids can’t make us feel any sort of way. We receive their behavior through the lens of our own pain, from how we were treated as children to the state of our ongoing mental health. Plus, we have to consider how we have been treating our children. Have we created a situation where their reaction to our behavior has generated dysregulation to the point that they’re prompted to shift into a space of disrespect?

If we perceive that our kids are being disrespectful, it’s time to connect! First, stop what you’re doing, take a personal inventory of how your body is feeling, and do some square breathing.

This is not the moment to lecture or correct. It’s the time to let them know they’re loved and accepted; let them know that we see their feelings exploding.; and let them know that they can let us know what’s wrong without fear of retribution. A phrase I try to remember is, “You must be feeling pretty bad to [insert behavior]. How can I help?” My hope here is that you will work toward jumping to empathy and curiosity instead of anger and control. I’ll be working toward the exact same thing myself.

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