Research Round-Up: What Respect Means to Teens

The need to be valued by others is universal (Kurzban & Leary, 2001; DeCremer & Mulder, 2007). While demonstrated differently in different cultures, it is a fundamental human need, and it is required to establish a secure sense of self. It is the fuel that feeds our drive to find a sense of purpose in our lives and to form attachments and connections with others. Without expressions of respect, we cannot know the value in ourselves or the value in others. Imagine how empty we would feel without this. Respect is a basic and intuitive desire, and so critical for positive outcomes in our work—which is why the authors of What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change devote an entire chapter talking about its value and application with adolescents.

Receiving respect is important to teens. Researchers who have studied respect have found that not only do teens very clearly know when they are or are not being respected, but their behavior is shaped by these experiences. For many teens, respect is a powerful determinant for whether they will engage in productive behaviors or destructive behaviors. Even more critically, respect has been found to be a mechanism that supports the development of a strong moral core.

During their research for their book What Works with Teens, clinical social workers Britt Rathbone, and Julie Baron also conducted interviews with teens about respect. In some instances, teens reported that feeling valued or respected came from being challenged or pushed beyond their comfort zone. Being pushed by an adult conveyed a message to these teens about the adult’s belief in their capabilities. Teens also expressed feeling respected when adults paid attention to them by listening and responding without judgment, and accepting their beliefs and values even if those beliefs and values were different from the adults’ own. Additionally, when adults were responsive to their intellectual, physical, social, and emotional needs, teens sensed a genuine concern for their welfare, which made them feel valued. Lastly, adolescents want adults to hold the bar high for them in all arenas. When adult expectations were expressed in the spirit of optimism and anticipation of attaining positive goals, and when adults treated them as capable of mastering challenges, teens reported feeling respected (Hajii, 2006). Treating others the way you want to be treated, respecting personal space and belongings, and not talking behind people’s backs were other behaviors young people identified as important in exhibiting respect, coming from both peers and adults (King & Vidourek, 2010).

Positive behavior changes occur when respect, rather than coercion, is used to motivate adolescents. Curricula focusing on promoting caring, respect, empathy, self-discipline, and the cultivation of positive student-teacher relationships resulted in improved grades for students who had been taught these skills (Dunn, 2010). These students also demonstrated more of a willingness to admit mistakes, work on corrections, and stand up appropriately for their rights. They showed more respect for others’ property, persistence and effort to complete tasks, empathy for others, self-control, a willingness to accept responsibilities, and the ability to work without disrupting others. At the same time, they were less likely to exhibit attention-seeking behaviors, submissiveness with peers, exaggerated or inappropriate self-blaming, bossiness, bullying, and physical aggression. Finally, when students feel cared for and respected by their peers and staff in schools, they are significantly less likely to internalize or externalize risk-taking behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse, violence, bullying, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide (King & Vidourek, 2010).

Developmental theorists have long identified respect as an important component in making thoughtful moral choices, and vital for children and adolescents to develop empathy. Recent researchers and theorists suggest not only that moral development relies on prosocial behaviors—such as respect—demonstrated in the context of social relationships, but that it is the responsibility of educational systems to teach character education in order to help our youth build their foundation for a purposeful and fulfilling life and to contribute to a just and compassionate society (Frichand, 2008). So for adolescents, learning respect by receiving respect is critical for their moral development, and the adult-teen relationship has the potential to be the vehicle for the direct instruction and modeling of moral character and core values.

For more about What Works with Teens, check out Britt Rathbone, MSSW, LCSW-C, and Julie Baron, MSW, LCSW-C’s new book.


DeCremer, D., & Mulder, L. B. (2007). A passion for respect: On understanding the role of human needs and morality. Gruppendynamik und Organisationsberatung, 38(4), 439–449.

Frichand, A. (2008). Moral and values of adolescents today: Where is this new generation going and what needs to be done? In: E. Avram (Ed.) Psychology in a positive world: Resources for personal, organizational and social development, 31–58, Bucharest: Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti.

Hajii. (2006). Four faces of respect. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 15(2), 66–70.

King, K. A., & Vidourek, R. A. (2010). In search of respect: A qualitative study exploring youth perceptions. International Journal on School Dissaffection, 7(1), 5–17.

Kurzban, R., & Leary, M. R. (2001). Evolutionary origins of stigmatization: The functions of social exclusion. Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association, 127(2), 187–208.

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