A divorced mother writes to Dr. Cale with the following question about her disrespectful teenager:

“It’s mother’s day, and I awaken to my 13-year-old daughter who doesn’t even grunt at me. I am worried. My daughter does nothing around the house and shows no appreciation for anything I do. I am divorced, spend most of my money trying to provide for her and she only seems to abuse me and walk away. It makes me sad…particularly on mother’s day. Is there anything I can do to make a difference!”


Frustrated Teenager


Dear Sara,

Many parents can relate to your struggles. The teenage years are often difficult, and the confusion of today’s teenagers is often more pronounced on special occasions and holidays than at other times of the year.

But don’t give up hope! There are two reasons for optimism. First, you can change the way that you are responding to her unhappiness and disrespect, and that change can influence her behavior toward you. Secondly, she will only be a teenager for so long…and often (not always) maturity is curative in and of itself.

However, let me focus on what you can do differently to encourage a change on her part. You have offered several important hints to how your good intentions may have contributed to a teenager who sounds a bit spoiled, overindulged, and ungrateful.

First, in many divorce situations, and in many intact families where both parents are working, it is not uncommon for parents to go overboard in trying to give their child everything she wants. This is a major mistake.

Early in life, this begins to teach your child that, “It’s Mom’s/Dad’s job to make me happy.” The harder that mom and dad work to make everything perfect for their children…the more children often learn to put responsibility for their own happiness onto their parent’s shoulders.

This teaches children that it’s their parents’ job to resolve their emotional upsets, take care of every little want and desire, and make sure that their unhappiness is removed. This seems innocent enough when kids are in elementary school, as parents can’t stand to see their kids unhappy. This is even tougher if parents are prone to feeling guilty when kids start to blame their parents for their unhappiness.

As children get older, it is easy to establish the trap where mom and dad start working harder and harder at trying to keep their kids happy and trying to satisfy them. Children, and eventually teenagers, become dependent upon this effort from their parents.

During these years, the “emotional muscle of responsibility” is never developed because children are not working that muscle; instead, their parents are working the muscle for them. They never learn to take responsibility for their choices and their unhappiness; thus they appear unable to initiate effective solutions and blame parents when they are not satisfied.

“Why should they look elsewhere…if we teach them it’s our job to make them happy?”

This is not teaching kids about reality. Life simply doesn’t work that way.

The bottom line here is that we must turn this around, to begin to teach your 13-year old that it’s not “Mom’s job” to keep her happy. Here’s my plan for how you do that:

We can’t make your daughter have appreciation, compassion, and empathy. But we can create opportunities for her to learn this.

You can do that best by making sure that life at home will mimic the reality she will experience in the “real world.’

Explain to your daughter, “Mom has made a big mistake. When you have treated me with disrespect and ugliness, I still gave you everything you wanted. It’s like I respected your disrespect. This is not the way the world is going to work when you grow up. And from now on, it’s not the way it’s going to work here at home.”

Further explained, “I am asking you to be respectful and responsive to me and to my simple requests for helping out a bit around the house. If you say “no” to this, that’s okay with me. I am not going to argue, negotiate, remind, plead, beg, nag, or in any way try to force you to be respectful and responsive. Instead, I will just walk away. I take your response to be a big NO to my request. However…

“From now on, when you say “no” to being respectful, I, unfortunately, will simply say “no” to you. This means NO to all the extras…the TV, the computer, the phone, going to the mall, having your friends over, the ballgames, the dances, etc. So this is very simple: When you say “YES” to my request for respect, I will usually say “YES” to you. When you say “NO” to being respectful and helping out a bit, I will say “NO” to your requests for all the extra stuff. Don’t worry…you will still get fed. But there will be no dinners at Friendly’s.” End of conversation. Period.

Finally, remember, when your daughter is ugly and disrespectful toward you, walk away. However, at the same time, take away all the extras. For the rest of the day, remove the goodies…the TV, computer, access to friends, telephone, etc.

More on disrespect here! Read the article on handling a bad attitude, disrespect, and child anger!