Are Teenagers Losing Respect for Authority? A High School Counselor Weighs In

Sure, we want our kids to have a voice. But it's important we teach them to question authority respectully.

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: Are Teenagers Losing Respect for Authority? A High School Counselor Weighs In

Written By: Jessica Manning

My colleague and I were standing in the girls’ restroom at the high school where I work as a counselor trying to convince three girls who were hiding in the stall to come out. They were skipping class (and vaping) and refused to exit the stall. 

Are Teenagers Losing Respect for Authority? A High School Counselor Weighs In


This wasn’t the first time we played this game with these particular girls, and our patience was waning.

After several minutes, my colleague finally declared, “We’ve called your parents and they’re on their way to pick you up.” One of the girls stuck her hand underneath the stall with her fingers in the shape of a zero and replied, “This is how many f@#ks I give about that.”

Wow! I actually had to stifle a laugh. (Educators are required to have a sense of humor about these things, or we won’t survive.) And let’s be honest, what an epic response – one I’ve admittedly silently said to myself a few times. 

However, all joking aside, consider the sheer audacity it takes for a fifteen-year-old to say that to an adult.

Most times, it’s extremely difficult to find humor (and patience) in the moment when you’re dealing with defiant teenagers. And, sadly, this type of blatant disrespect for authority is on the rise with more and more students.

I can assure you, I’m not one of those adults who says (with disdain) things like, “Kids these days!” Nor am I an educator who claims that all teenagers have gotten progressively more disrespectful through the years. Because, bottom line, the majority of teens I personally work with are kind, talented, and intelligent and are juggling a thousand things at once; they’re truly amazing.

However, I cannot deny that when it comes to teenagers losing respect for authority, I have certainly seen a difference between the teens I worked with 20 years ago and the teens I work with today. 

Spend a day at a high school, and you’ll see what I mean. An increasing number of teens are saying things to teachers such as, “You can’t talk to me like that; I’ll disrespect you if you disrespect me…” or “You can’t tell me what to do”  when being redirected. 

My unresearched, but experienced-based conclusion is this: More teens today than in years past fundamentally believe that they are on the SAME LEVEL as adults. 

“Respect your elders” is no longer a given with kids (particularly teenagers). If this is an old-fashioned adage, then call me old-fashioned. But, being on the front lines with teenagers day in and day out, I am genuinely concerned for kids who struggle with authority because they will face it for the rest of their lives in one way or another whether they like it or not. 

I realize that as a society, we must acknowledge that the world is a different place than when we were teens.

Issues related to social injustice, diversity and inclusion, and mental health, in addition to the impact of social media, have shaped who our teens are, what they believe to be right, and how they interact with others. 

And this is okay. But at some point, they need to understand that respect for authority prevents chaos, whether in school, in their future career, in society, or in general. 

Can we still raise respectful kids in a society that has different expectations on who should and shouldn’t deserve unconditional respect? In other words, can we teach our kids to show respect but also to respectfully question authority if/when they feel convicted? 

The answer is YES… absolutely.

7 Tips to Teach Your Teen to Respect Authority

1. It Starts When They’re Young 

As parents, we have to establish at an early age that we are in charge, or we’ll be instilling the belief in our kids that they can test and challenge us any time for the rest of their lives.

If your teen grew up knowing that they called all the shots and that they could disrespect you and your rules without consequence, commanding their respect now that they are teens will be more challenging. 

2. Role-Model Respect

But it’s not too late! Notice I said commanding instead of demanding respect. Sure, we might be able to demand (or force) our kids to be respectful out of fear, but doing so doesn’t mold their hearts into wanting to respect us, let alone anyone in a position of authority. We’ll be more successful in molding their hearts if we model respect – to our kids and everyone we come in contact with.

If you speak in demeaning tones and snap at your kids, you’re modeling that it’s okay to speak to others in that manner. And, you can be sure that the same demeaning tone will come right back at you in the future. If you’re rude to your waitress or speak disparagingly about your boss or your kids’ coaches, for instance, you’re confirming that it’s permissible to speak disrespectfully about or to other human beings. We have to SHOW our kids what respect looks like. 

3. Don’t Ignore Disrespect

Part of modeling what respect looks like also includes pointing out what it does not look like. Disrespect cannot be ignored, brushed under the rug, or marginalized with the thought that “Kids will be kids,” or “They’ll grow out of it.” It must be disciplined in one way or another. 

(I’m a firm believer that kids should be given a free pass now and then… our kids aren’t perfect. What I’m referring to here is continued disrespect.) 

My own children have a healthy reverence for me and my husband because we taught them to. We taught them the importance of respecting others – particularly those in authority. Yet, we’re also walking them through how to respectfully question authority when they feel convicted. 

4. Encourage Humility

The thing I’ve found about teenagers is that they often feel as though they have all the answers – sound familiar? Thus, they often feel convicted. Although I would never want to squelch any teen’s voice, we need to instill the belief in them that they don’t have all the answers, they have a lot to learn (don’t we all?), that they can gain a lot simply by listening to others who may have more experience and that there is a right way and a wrong way to handle a situation.

Humility… it can take our kids far in life. 

It’s okay to genuinely question the logic behind a rule, but there’s a way to do it without arguing. It’s okay to disagree with someone’s philosophies, beliefs, and values, but it doesn’t have to be at the cost of someone’s dignity. It’s okay to think you’re right when someone says you’re wrong, but it doesn’t always need to be voiced. And there are times in this life when we all just have to accept that maybe our opinion is not going to affect an outcome, so it’s best left to ourselves.

5. Let Others Be Your Village

We have to rely on others to be our eyes and ears as it relates to our kids and their behavior. But… it can be hard. As a mother, I’ve had moments where I’ve had to step back and acknowledge my defensiveness when others have reported something to me about my kids.

But as an educator, I’d ask that parents reasonably trust the hearts and experiences of those who have chosen and who have been hired to work with their kids. (Of course, assess the situation fully.) If a teacher expresses that your child’s level of disrespect is unacceptable, it’s probably because it’s discrepant from the thousands of kids they’ve worked with in their careers. Experience with teens day in and day out gives them a baseline for comparison.

6. Of Course, Give Your Teen a Voice, But Understand There Are Two Sides to EVERY Story

One of my colleagues was struggling with a student who was spending more time making fun of other students and talking back than he was learning, which impacted his grades. The student’s mom requested a conference to ask why her son’s grades had dropped and when told why, she called the teacher a “bitch” and walked out. 

It’s only natural for our fierce mama bear instincts to kick in when someone calls our kids out on something, but as parents, we’re doing our kids a huge disservice if we don’t fully evaluate the circumstances before taking our kid’s side. (Some teens can be quite manipulative.)

I get it, teachers aren’t always right and some can be disrespectful themselves. But if we constantly disregard and disrespect teachers (or anyone else of authority), I can assure you, our kids will, too. 

7. Ask Yourself These Questions

Am I encouraging my child to push back in a disrespectful manner? Do I always take my child’s side no matter what? Do I blame others (educators, coaches, bosses, etc.) for my child’s shortcomings instead of honestly assessing the situation? Am I convinced my child can do no wrong and that everyone else is to blame?

The harsh reality is we’re not helping our teens if we’re not teaching them to sit up a little straighter when his/her boss walks in the room or to argue with a police officer when pulled over for speeding or breaking the law. They need to have a healthy reverence for authority. (That doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t calmly stand up to disrespect.)

As parents, there are some things in which we have to remain steadfast; the definition of respect is one of them.

About Jessica Manning

Jessica is a high school counselor with over 20 years of experience working with teenagers. She earned an M.A. in school counseling and a B.A. in English and secondary education. Jessica is married to a high school principal and has three teenage boys; her current life revolves around all things teen. When not working or following her sons’ sporting events, Jessica appreciates any opportunity she gets to veg at home with her family and her dog, Phyllis. 


If you enjoyed reading, “Are Teenagers Losing Respect for Authority? A High School Counselor Weighs In,” here are a few other posts you might like:

Help… My Teenager is So Disrespectful and I’m Worn Out Trying to Handle It

When Your Teen’s Attitude Sucks: 10 Things You Can Do to Turn it Around 

6 Ways to Tame Your Teen’s Sass

Parents, what are your observations? Are teenagers losing respect for authority?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below! 
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Claudia June 2, 2024 - 7:15 am

Great article, for me, as a mom, I am here.
I would ask for some examples for point 3, how to raise / point out tthat it is disrespectful and to improve it? What worked for you?

Nancy Reynolds June 4, 2024 - 8:20 am

Thanks for reaching out, Claudia. It’s helped our cause that my husband and I were diligent about teaching our boys when they were little what we considered to be disrespectful. In the moment, we’d point out disrespectful tones and facial expressions, because many times kids cannot recognize how they’re coming across. When they didn’t obey rules, were ungrateful, or demanding, we’d explain how it made us feel.

Because we were intentional when they were little, our teenagers know now when they’ve crossed the line. I wish I could say this means they never do! Ha! I’d say it is more difficult with teens to point out disrespect in the moment, because they’re emotions make them incapable of receiving it at that time. Now, if my teens are talking disrespectfully, etc. I might say something like, “I love you too much to argue in this manner. Let’s talk later.” Or, “I know you love me more than your tone is showing, so let’s pause and talk later.” I know it sounds cheesy, but saying something about love does at least give them pause and bring them back to reality, even if they aren’t wanting love in that moment.

When emotions have settled, just like when they were little, I talk to them about how their actions make me feel. “When you talk back to me in that manner, I feel hurt or dismissed or unappreciated…or whatever it might be. Most teens don’t want to make their parents feel disrespected; it’s just that their natural self-centeredness takes over in the heat of the moment!

Saying thing like, “You’re not going to talk to me like that,” or “I’m in charge; don’t question my rules,” are what I would call examples of demanding respect instead of commanding it. It just doesn’t work well with teens.

Some of our most meaningful conversations with our boys about this sort of thing have happened in calm moments when I know they’re in a good mood. I might say something like, “Can we process our argument the other day?” Or, “I need to be honest with you about how your actions have made me feel lately…” I try to focus on my feelings instead of blaming them, so they don’t get defensive.

Bottom line, I don’t engage in the moment, I process later with them, and I focus on the heart side of things. All of this is certainly easier said than done, and I definitely don’t have it down pat. It’s a work in progress; I wish you well in your work, too. 🙂 — Jessica


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