Discipline & Respect, with Teens & Preteens


Q: I am totally struggling with my oldest… One thing that I’m having trouble with is knowing how to discuss things with him. He still struggles with basic obedience, so that is an issue. Also, he tends to argue with me while we are talking.

For example, this morning I told him that something he said to his brother was rude, and he argued that it wasn’t rude and made a lot of excuses about how his brother “always” and “never” does such-and-such. Trying to deflect his own guilt to someone else.

Any thoughts for how to communicate better? It was easier at earlier stages – you touched this and I said not to touch it, etc. I know that it’s not my job to convict him of sin or even convince him that I am right. But he does need to be respectful. It’s hard to know where to draw the line of what’s respectful. If I’m saying “this was rude” and he’s saying “that’s not what I did” or “no it’s not” should I shut that down? Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated…

A: With the oldest.

What I’m learning about the older kids is this:

  • show them respect as a person, which means, I need to work not to talk over them, dismiss their ideas, belittle (even when what they are saying is clearly irrational/emotionally-driven/illogical), or assume I understand their motives.
  • Shut down disrespect the minute it happensbut NOT in the same way I do with a preschooler/elementary age. In younger years, it’s immediate. Pointed out, corrected, disciplined, rephrased. But with older kids, I pose it like a question, “can you see how the way you just said that sounds like you think my idea is dumb?” “did you hear the way your tone went up at the end? That makes it sound like you ‘already know’ this stuff and think me telling you to do it is stupid and unnecessary. If that were true, you would have already done XYZ.” Etc.

LOTS more questions, rather than corrections/instructions.

  • Also… a lot more coming-back-to-talk-it-through AFTER the fact. Talking things through in the heat of the moment is almost pointless, most of the time. It just gets more heated, more misunderstood, more spun out of control. But when we sit down together a few minutes, or an hour or two, after the fact, it’s better.



OK, those are some overarching principles I’m currently finding helpful. Now, as to the specific you shared, this is roughly how that might sound here:

Mom: “Saying X was rude to your brother”

Teen/Preteen: “No it wasn’t… bc of blah blah blah”

Mom: “You don’t argue with your mama. It WAS rude. Anyone sitting here looking at this would think it was rude. You have a perspective problem and you are only seeing things your way. God has put you in our home so that you can learn from us, and right now, your pride is getting in the way.

Proverbs 18:2 says “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Anyone is a fool when we think that our opinion is the only right one, but it is especially foolish to think that you know better than your mama.

Look in my eyes. You are 12. (or whatever age he is) One of the reasons God has let you be in our family is so that you can learn from your daddy & me. We have lived 3x as long as you. It was 25 (or however many) years ago that I was your age. There is so much you could learn during this time in your life, but if you keep having this attitude — the attitude that says “my way of seeing things is the only way of seeing things,” what does Proverbs say you will be?”

(hopefully, he’ll say “a fool”… if not, ask him to read the verse, etc., until he gets it.)


AFTER this first time of a lengthier instruction, you just need to refer back to it in far less words.

The next time it would be, “SonName, don’t argue with me. It WAS rude.”

  • One other thought: sometimes it helps to put it in the context of friendships… I’ll say the name of a buddy, “if Ben was here, you wouldn’t treat him that way, would you?” — which of course they’ll often reply by saying, “but BEN wouldn’t do DUMB stuff with my Legos either…” You can stay on track by saying, “but if you’re around him long enough, Ben WILL do things you don’t like… things that annoy you or hurt your feelings. Things you would think ARE dumb. Even then, you would control yourself and wouldn’t be rude to him. You would find a kinder, straightforward way to say what you want/need. THAT’S how you should be treating YoungerBrother.”

And then give some POSITIVE examples of how he could still express the same feeling/desire WITHOUT being rude.

  • “Please don’t toss my Lego set like that ever again.”
  • “I don’t like it when you move my books and I can’t find them.”
  • “It’s frustrating when you don’t rinse out your bowl cause then the oatmeal gets hard and it takes longer for me to wash.”
  • “Please don’t kick me as you walk past.” Etc.


It’s funny because, when they are young, we can think, “We’ve been at this for FOUR DAYS, when is he gonna get it?”

And by the time you get to the teen years, it’s, “I’ve been at this for ten YEARS…” and there’s still more to go.

This season of parenting is a LOT LOT LOT of patient, gentle, repetitious teaching… a lot of questions to draw out the heart and really understand/expose his thinking patterns (to him and to you)… a lot of TIME… a lot of examples… and a lot of PRAYER on my side of things.

My prayers have sounded more desperate in this last year… and I think that’s a good thing. God is spurring me on to a deeper awareness of our need for HIM to do the saving, HIM to do the changing, HIM to expose the sin in our hearts… for all of us.

It is a much deeper, more dependent season of parenting… for me, at least. NOT so easy to discern on the surface… much more a watching of and discerning of heart things.


IN THE COMMENTS, SHARE: Any tips you have to share this with mom? What have YOU learned about the season of parenting preteens & teens?

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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14 Responses

  1. Melissa says:

    I don’t have older kids yet but I appreciate this perspective because I know it’s coming. It does make me wonder, how do you deal with the “Why?” question when it comes to commands to younger kids? For instance, you tell them “no” and they ask why? I honestly don’t mind my kids asking, because it’s good for them to understand that I have real reasons to say no, but then it almost always turns into an argument about my reason.
    3yo: Mom, can I play outside?
    Me: No, not right now.
    3yo: Why?
    Me: Because we are leaving for church in 15 minutes and I don’t want you to get dirty.
    3yo: But I won’t get dirty! Blah blah blah(arguing).

    So do you shut it down at the “why?” Or do you explain your reasoning and then just discipline the inevitable argument?

    • Jess Connell says:

      I think there are different acceptable ways to handle the “why” question. Here’s how we handle it:

      With a child who is not yet consistently obedient, I don’t answer “why” in the moment. Pretty much ever.

      This child just needs to obey first.

      For the young child who (nearly always) consistently obeys, I might answer “why” for things that are truly “why” things– say, we normally leave at 9:45 for church but this morning we’re leaving at 8:15. Or we normally wear hiking boots for a hike but today we’re only taking flip-flops. Etc. Truly odd scenarios where a “why” is appropriate.

      As they get older, “why” becomes OK, if they are having an overarching attitude of “yes, I want to obey you; I’m just curious- why X?” We coach them toward that.

      “Please move in the direction of taking out the garbage. Then, as you are doing it, or after you’ve done it, you can ask ‘why’ we wanted it done before the normal 8am, this morning?”

      Another family I know says, “we can talk about ‘why’ after. For now, just do it.”

      I don’t think answering every ‘why’ in the moment is /wrong/ necessarily. But I do think “why” is typically a delay tactic, especially in the moment of obedience.

      Making sure obedience is in place before beginning to engage on a “why” level is our practice, but I don’t think it’s an absolute.

      For us, though, if I stopped to answer every “why” when obedience was needful, I’d be answering “why” questions non-stop, 8 times over, for the last 12 years, and the next 25.

      So this is how we do it. And, 12 years in, it’s still how we do it. :) I’m happy with these results, and my preteens and teens still are very conversational and interactive, so I don’t think we shut down their creativity, curiosity, interaction, trust in us, by doing it this way. 😉

    • Jess Connell says:

      To answer your exact question:

      3yo: Mom, can I play outside?
      Me: No, not right now.
      3yo: Why?
      Me: Because we are leaving for church in 15 minutes and I don’t want you to get dirty.
      3yo: But I won’t get dirty! Blah blah blah(arguing).
      So do you shut it down at the “why?” Or do you explain your reasoning and then just discipline the inevitable argument?

      Here, that would go,

      3yo: Mom, can I play outside?
      Me: No, not right now.
      3yo: Why?
      Mom: Because Mama said no. You can go play blocks or grab a book from the library and sit on the couch.
      3yo: “Why can’t I go outside?”
      Mom: (probably a spank) Mama said no going outside. Grab a book and sit on the couch.
      (Then, see to it that he does that, first, before anything else.)
      On the way to church, I might offer the explanation: “See? We’re going to church. We don’t want to go outside and get dirty before we go to church!”

      To a 3-year-old, I probably wouldn’t answer “why” in the moment, unless I just wanted to, because of the follow-up you supplied. MOST OFTEN, my experience has been that they want to argue back. IF my child had already showed that their question ends after one explanation, then I would probably be more likely to give an explanation.

      It’s really more about discerning the heart, and MOST 3-year-olds aren’t really interested in getting an explanation and then willingly submitting to mom. They’re really interested in asking WHY so they can argue and tear down the why.

      As kids get older, and gain wisdom and understanding, I am more willing to answer “whys” when asked in a way that is responding rightly to authority (i.e., if I say, “please go take a minute to empty out the back of the van” and they get up to go put on shoes, and, in the process of heading outside ask, “hey- why? are we gonna do something special today?”, I’m more apt to answer, because they’ve already shown… they’re responding well. That’s just curiosity, not argumentativeness.). Make sense?

      • Melissa says:

        Thank you for your detailed reply! Yes, it makes a lot of sense. My oldest is definitely not in the “consistently obedient” category, so your advice will help us get on track.

        I read your reply to my husband, and he made the observation that your method is exactly how we as Christians should reply to God’s commands. Even when we don’t understand the “why,” we obey first, then we can respectfully search for the why. We get into trouble when we use the “why” to delay or refuse obedience. That will be a good parallel to help me keep on track with the kids.

        • Jess Connell says:

          Wow, great connection! I wouldn’t have thought of that, but it’s a great observation.

          God’s ways often seem inscrutable until we’ve obeyed for a while, and then we begin to understand His wisdom and oversight and value it to a degree we could not have appreciated when we were new believers.

          Thanks for sharing that! So good.

          • Diana says:

            Jess, this is spot on! Thanks! I enjoyed reading this thread. Over here, the phrase we use is “Obey first, and then we’ll talk.” (This wasn’t my own idea, we got it from a parenting book.) In my experience, hilariously, the child WILL NEVER COME BACK to get the “why” answer after he has obeyed. Asking “why?” was, as you say, only a delaying tactic and a way to start an argument.

  2. D says:

    Thank you. With my six year old I am already experiencing the arguing and disrespectful attitude and I have grown tired of trying to consequence it. I love the idea of questioning them and drawing the answer out of there own mouth. As kids are starting to feel that they “already know” it empowers them with the truth instead of arguing with and them holding tight to their false beliefs.

  3. Brandy says:

    I have also found it helpful to sit down when speaking to my older boys. If I am towering over them and trying to make sure that my authority is clear it seems more threatening. But, if I am lower than they are and speaking with a clam voice, a smile, and total confidence then there is no reason for them to feel threatened. I want to make it easier for them to see what I am trying to show them and remind them that I am on their side. If they are flustered it gives them security to see that I am not flustered. I am instructing from a place of calm rest.

  4. Katie says:

    Some of the best advice I’ve heard for parenting is to “make all undesirable behavior unproductive.” Children do not respond well to long lectures (I try to keep it snappy and to-the-point in that regard), but they respond well to added jobs. If one of our kids is lazy or disrespectful, they automatically get an extra job to do right away or when their current job is finished (age appropriate jobs). If their attitude does not improve (tone of voice, body language, etc.), they continue to repeat that job or get additional jobs until their attitude has genuinely improved. Meanwhile, my attitude has to stay consistently cheerful. Sometimes I join the child in their extra job to help them improve their attitude while we sing or talk together. Usually I’m doing other work in the same room, but can still sing or talk with them. In my experience, lengthy lectures do not make undesirable behavior unproductive, but just lengthen the time that the bad attitude lasts.

    Some important wisdom imparted to me was to never tell children that God doesn’t like it when they’re acting like that, etc. while reproving them. The association of God’s displeasure and quoting the Bible coupled with a bad attitude can build resentment against both of those. Rather, have enjoyable Bible reading together as a family regularly and discuss what the Scriptures mean, allowing freedom for children to discern the practical application in their own lives. If children are singled out for their sins or attitudes during family Bible reading, that will not help their attitude.

    If there is consistent conflict, there is probably an underlying issue of lack of fellowship with that child which needs to be addressed before attitude improves. When a child is in fellowship with his parents, he will want to please them and there will be less arguing and conflict. Fellowship comes through time spent with children (reading, working, etc.).

    I would also ask this mother, “Do you argue with your husband or others in front of your children?” More is caught than taught, so be sure the example you set is what you want your children to be. I sometimes find myself scolding my son for saying something I know he has heard me say – then it’s time to apologize and set a better example. I can’t expect my kids to be what I am not.

    • Brandy says:

      This was great. I’m glad that you shared the part about coming down hard on them with the Bible in hand. Our instruction should be a garland around their necks. I totally agree that consistent conflict usually means a lack of fellowship with the child. The son that I used to have the most trouble with is now the one that I have the sweetest relationship with. Much prayer, loving on him, and making time to chat and hang out with him have made a world of difference. It takes a lot of time! But, it is so worth it.

      Another random tip…I have seen a lot of growth in one of my sons since we began reading A Basket of Flowers (a Lamplighter Press book). Reading spirituallly enriching stories that inspire them to love God more and live out their faith are wonderful (especially when they are fun and have a terrific plot!).

  5. Diana says:

    Thanks for this article! I really enjoy reading your perspective about older children. You guys are about five years ahead of us on the parenting journey – our eldest is 10, and we also have all boys but one. :) I must confess that I am indeed very intimidated by the upcoming teen years, having seen other teens at work (ack!) and having known myself as a teen. Our eldest is growing like a young moose but hasn’t hit the point of mental adolescence – but I know it’s coming soon. I appreciate anything and everything that you choose to share about the journey!!

    Have a great weekend!

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