Adolescents need our respect.
Sure, we would all appreciate a little more respect, perhaps especially from the teens in our lives. But adolescents are particularly sensitive tobeing treated respectfully. Middle adolescents, roughly ages 13 through 15 (grades 7 through 10), appear to be especially responsive to status and respect compared to younger children or adults. When we understand this need and treat adolescents with the respect they crave, we can build closer relationships, support positive behavior, and possibly even earn their respect in return.
What the Research Says
When we talk about respect, we mean treating adolescents as competent individuals with value, who have some autonomy and power of their own. Respect goes hand-in-hand with status—where one ranks in a social hierarchy is determined largely by how much respect one receives from others in the group.
Hormonal changes at the beginning of puberty seem to play a part in the increasing attention to social status and respect, encouraging adolescents to change their behavior depending on what earns respect and status in a given context. Middle adolescents show a significant stress response compared to younger children (even younger adolescents) when their social status feels threatened. As they get older, students feel more and more strongly about adults respecting their right to make their own decisions.
What Families and Educators Need to Know About Respect
Adolescents are intrinsically motivated to behave in ways that garner respect or increase their social status, and research shows that efforts that harness this motivation get results.
Effective interventions at school for this age group appear to be those that demonstrate respect for these students’ perspectives and decision making. For example, a healthy-eating intervention for 8th grade students that showed respect for their competence at making decisions, valued the wisdom they had to pass on to younger students, and positioned healthy eating as a high-status activity led to healthier food choices.
Respectful relationships with adults can be transformative for this age group. A program that encouraged teachers to be empathetic in their interactions with their adolescent students by asking students for their perspective when they misbehaved made students feel more respected, more likely to respect their teacher, and more motivated to behave better in the future.
In a study that randomly assigned students to receive “wise feedback” (“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations of you and I know that you can reach them”) or a control message (“I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper”) on an assigned essay, students who received the wise feedback, particularly those who had reported feeling repeatedly disrespected over the past two years, were substantially more willing to revise, got higher scores on their revisions, and had significantly fewer discipline problems one year later, even when they no longer had that teacher.
Tips for Families and Educators on How to Show Respect for Adolescents
So respect is important to adolescents, and it can lead to positive changes in behavior. But what, exactly, does respect look like? Following are just a few ways to channel adolescents’ inherent drive to earn respect:
- Get curious. Before giving advice and telling adolescents what they should do or not do, ask questions to shine a light on their insights and goals. Being curious about their ideas and feelings shows interest and respect and opens the door for your comments to actually be seen as helpful instead of just intrusive.
- Pick your battles. Famed parenting researcher Diana Baumrind explained that although adolescents may accept family rules about certain moral issues, they see personal issues such as what they wear as their right to decide. You can show respect by providing opportunities to make decisions about their personal space and presentation, reserving the parental edicts for issues of safety and morality.
- Explain your reasoning. Adolescents are less likely to be defensive when their caregivers give rational explanations for their positions. Explaining the goals or values behind family rules and decisions (instead of declaring “because I said so”) expresses respect.
- Prioritize relationship building. As important as peers may be to adolescents, the opinions of valued adults still matter. When adults start by showing genuine interest in the student, building a connection based on dignity and respect, young people can be motivated toward more positive behavior.
- Provide opportunities for students to persuade others. Designing activities such as writing a letter to a future student lets students know that you see them as having wisdom to offer to someone else, and gives them a chance to feel a sense of purpose.
- Involve them in decision making. Respecting students’ autonomy by giving them a voice where you can, in issues such as seating arrangements, classroom rules, homework policies, or activities, has been shown to increase student motivation and connection to the school community.
Adolescents are uniquely attuned to earning respect and social status. Giving them the respect they crave is not just a nice thing to do, it’s a way to be more effective as a caregiver or teacher. When adolescents feel seen and valued, they’re more likely to respond, because you’ve made your request a way for them to earn status in your eyes.