Coping with a Drunk-Brain Child

“Disrespect” and Knowing When to Be Quiet

Have you ever gotten into an argument with a drunk person?  If you have, you already know that doing so is – at best – pointless or – at worst – damaging.   Even if you somehow manage to remain calm and logical, the drunk person will not be moved; no matter how “right” you are or how wrong they may be.  Arguing simply won’t do any good.  Instead,  tell the drunk person you’ll talk to them once they’re sober.  The only way to win an argument with a drunk person is to refuse to engage in one.

Still, as a clinical child psychologist that works with families every day, I can attest that parents argue with drunk people all the time.  These drunk people may not have consumed alcohol (in fact, many of them don’t even know what alcohol tastes like), but they are – in a way – intoxicated nonetheless.  These drunk people are often our children.

When a parent tells me that his or her child has been disrespectful, there is a good chance that the child (and perhaps the parent) was emotionally intoxicated.  While in this state of mind, the child, teen, or parent will say a bunch of things that he or she doesn’t really mean. (“I hate you!”; “You don’t care about me!”; “I want to run away!”)  Yet, that doesn’t stop parents from taking the drunk-brain child seriously.  Instead of saying the equivalent of, “I’ll talk with you when you’re sober”, we argue with a drunk person.  Amazingly, we stay in the room and insist on making our point.  When this happens, parents seem to believe they are doing their duty as parents.  After all, they are teaching their children, just like all the parenting magazines and books prescribe, right?  But they aren’t; they’re actually just trying to win an argument with a drunk person.  And trying to win an argument with a drunk person is a big, big mistake.

Why?  Because – quite simply – the more time you spend arguing with a drunk person; the more likely it is that you’ll get emotionally-drunk yourself.  Just like your child, you’ll say things that you either don’t mean or you can’t follow through on.  This includes yelling, calling the child names, or (my favorite) attempting to cancel Christmas.

A child’s disrespect is often driven by his or her parent’s attempt to teach when the child is emotionally drunk.  Please understand it is not a question of what you’re trying to teach your child; it is a question of when you’re trying to teach them.  One of the most important things I tell parents is this: “Teach when the relationship is good.”  This, however, is the opposite of what happens.  Most parents have what I call “lecture mode.”  Going into lecture mode whenever a child makes a mistake creates problems because the child soon associates her parent talking with being punished.  Can we really afford having our children to form such an association?   Is it any wonder they tune us out so quickly?  Sometimes wisdom is knowing when to shut up.

“…it is not a question of what you’re trying to teach your child; it is a question of when you’re trying to teach them… Teach when the relationship is good.”


Three Situations that Trigger Disrespect or Drunk Brain in Children (and most husbands)

In my clinical experience, children and teens are at their most disrespectful or most drunk during three situations.  I can almost guarantee your child is 5-shots-of-vodka, emotionally drunk when…

  • The child just heard the word “no” or is disappointed;
  • The child is in trouble (i.e., he or she did something they know to be wrong); or
  • The child has to do something they hate to do (i.e., chores, homework, etc…).

In these three situations, there is a very, very good chance your child is emotionally drunk, and it is important to not argue with drunk people….no matter how right you think you are.  Let’s look at each of these three scenarios a little more closely.


Situation # 1:  Your child just heard no or is disappointed


Imagine your 15-year-old daughter wants to go to a party.  She is convinced that attending this party will change her life; yet, she doesn’t tell you about the party until the night before.  You rightly feel nervous and say “no.”  So far, so good.  But let’s say you make the grave mistake of staying in the room and arguing with a drunk person.  You decide (unwisely, I believe) to stay there and make a drunk person sober by being extra chatty.  In other words, you try to make the teen okay with your decision to deny her something that she has now based her entire reality on.  Of course, she is going to start being disrespectful!  She’s drunk, and it’s your job not to take the ramblings of a drunk person seriously.  When she tells you, for example, that you are “ruining her life” do you stay there and try to make her “get it” by defending yourself?  (“I know you are disappointed, but don’t talk to me that way.  I’m just doing what is best for you…blah, blah, blah” (insert voice of the teacher on the Charlie Brown cartoons).  Heavens, no!  We don’t argue with drunk people, remember?  Get out of there.  Please save your emotional energy.  Instead, say something like, “I’m sorry.  I know you’re disappointed.  We’ll talk later when you can talk to me differently…”, and keep your feet moving!  Presumably, you’ve already told her why she can’t go.  Why tell her again?  Just leave.  Remember: you can always go back later and teach when the relationship is good.  But in a drunk brain state-of-mind no teaching – no matter how well intended or well informed – takes place.  Don’t allow your pride or fear to pull you back into the room.  Keep moving.

“…in a drunk brain state-of-mind no teaching – no matter how well intended or well informed – takes place.”


Situation #2:  When your child is in trouble (i.e., he or she is caught doing something they know to be wrong)

Imagine you walk in on your 14-year-old son who is by himself and smoking marijuana.  You have caught him red (or pot) handed.  Because you’re understandably upset, you may be tempted to have a very, very drunk-brain conversation, like so:

Parent:  “Are you smoking pot?!”

Teen:  “uh …. No.”

Parent:  “Then what’s in your hand?”

Teen:  “I don’t know….”  (every parent’s favorite answer)

Parent (who now is also becoming drunk):   “What do you mean you don’t know!  It is right there!  I can smell it!”

Teen:    “It isn’t mine!  Why don’t you ever believe me!”  (Teen is practically yelling now, which is probably a sign that he feels ashamed)

Parent:  “How am I supposed to believe you?!?  Whose pot is it then?”

Teen:  “I don’t know…. A friend… he must have left it here…”


I could go on, but you get the point.  The kid is saying really, really dumb things, not because he is really, really dumb but because he is really, really busted.  And he knows it.  The conversation will not end well.  (“Gee, mom; you got me… Boy have I learned my lesson…”)  The child is defensive, which means he is about to start getting “disrespectful” and/or he is about to start lying.  Shame usually precedes both disrespect and lying.

Should you let your kid off the hook without consequences?  Of course not.  If the child does something wrong, then follow this formula: “You did A (the misbehavior), so now you get B (the consequence).  I’m too upset to talk to you right now.  We will talk about it later.”  Then walk away and implement a short-term, mild consequence ₁.  Resist the urge to swat flies with cannon balls by saying something like “You’re grounded for 6 months!,” which is exactly the kind of thing drunk-brain parents say.

“Shame usually precedes both disrespect and lying.”

It’s important to realize that lectures are not consequences.  Lectures are actually relationship killers because they trigger shame, and shame makes kids defensive ₂.  And a defensive kid is a disrespectful kid.  Be honest: would you respond with a “good attitude” if your boss seemed to take every opportunity to point out how you messed up?  No one likes to have his or her face rubbed in the mud.

Situation #3: When your child has to do something he or she hates to do

A mother came to me insisting that her child was being bullied.  This was interesting because the child never mentioned anything to me about being bullied.  When asked about it, the child was almost nonchalant: “Yeah, I guess kids don’t like me,” he said matter-of-factly.  The whole thing seemed suspicious.  I talked with mom privately.  “When exactly did he first mention to you that he was being bullied?” I asked.  The mother paused.  Only after a lot of reflection did the mother remember that the child first mentioned bullying while she was – non-coincidentally – trying to get him to do math.  This child hated doing math.  Wasn’t it suspicious that he only brought up bullying during homework time? Yet, this mother, who had her own history of being bullied, was incessant, “I can’t just let him be bullied, can I?”  I agreed, but first I asked her to participate in an experiment.  The next time he brought up being bullied while doing homework (and he was going to since mentioning bullying the first time resulted in a 10-minute delay of having to do homework), I suggested that mom warmly thank him for telling her and then redirect him by saying, “We’ll talk more about it later.  Please do problem #12….”  Once homework was finished, mom approached this child again.  “Weren’t you saying something about being bullied before?  We can still talk about it,” she said.  The child, who was now anxious to go outside and play with friends, said, “Ahhh, it’s no big deal.”  A true problem would still have been a problem later.  The timing of when a child chooses to “share” something is critical.

When a child is essentially forced to do something against his or her will – like do homework, complete chores, or eat something yucky – he or she will become upset.  At that moment, they will – as the old saying goes – “throw a bunch of (stuff) against the wall and see what sticks.”  And what sticks will be what distracts or delays from the despised task at hand.  If you engage with your child about something at this moment, then he or she will continue to bring it up later.  For instance, if your child learns that instead of eating something yucky, he can engage you in a drunk-brain conversation about how you don’t love him …  then you’ve set yourself up for at least 10 future drunk-brain conversations about how you don’t love him that he’ll force you to revisit whenever he’s upset.

“The timing of when a child chooses to “share” something is critical.”

Instead, allow the consequences to teach.  “If you don’t eat at least some ______, then you’ve chosen the following consequence…”  Disengage and walk away.  When possible, give the child some time to decide.  If he or she decides not to do what you’ve asked, then follow through.  Just don’t become emotionally drunk yourself!  Teach when (1) the consequence is over, and (2) when the relationship is good.  If your child brings up something concerning while she is drunk, you can always talk about it later when she’s not drunk.

You don’t have to completely ignore what the child says when they’re drunk, but you should probably, at the very least, take it with a sizeable grain of salt.  If your child is sharing something personal with you when he or she is not in one of these three situations, it’s important to listen.  Reflective listening can keep the bonds of any relationship strong ₃.


Keeping things Positive

Speaking of keeping the relationship strong, all of this may sound like I’m saying you should just ignore your child.  This isn’t true.  I just believe timing is important.  Remember: you can always teach later when the relationship is good.  Just make sure to “catch” your child being good.  I sometimes tell parents to follow a 1-to-5 ratio: for every one time the parent has to either ignore the child or implement a consequence, the parent has to look for at least five opportunities to praise or express appreciation/ interest.   This means you can’t lecture or teach until you’ve had at least 5 positive interactions with your child.  And remember – it is up to you to look for these positive moments.  Sometimes (but not always) the most disrespectful children are the children who get little attention for positive behavior; the parent only interacts when something is wrong.  All the good things the child does are essentially ignored.

For all intents and purposes, a disrespectful child is a momentarily intoxicated child.  Instead of alcohol, they are often intoxicated by disappointment (situation #1), shame (situation #2), or frustration (situation #3).  These three emotional states – disappointment, shame, and/or frustration – formulate a barrier or shield ₄ in our relationships.  When children use this shield to defend themselves ₅, our job is not to get defensive or drunk with them by perceiving the child as being “difficult” or “a brat.”  Instead, realize your child is protecting themselves as best they can.  Instead of arguing back, engage with them later when doing so will be more productive.  This sets a more positive emotional tone in the relationship and will make your teaching much, much more effective.  Emotional sobriety should always come before teaching!


References and Links

₁              For more about consequences, see Amy Morin’s “Disciplining Kids with Positive and Negative Consequences” at

₂              For more about how shame creates problems in general, see Lawrence B. Smith’s “Shame and Attachment” at I have also written another blog about shame in children (link to Why Does my Child Feel so Ashamed?).

₃              For more about how to do reflective listening when the child or teen is not drunk – see the section in my blog How to Make Requests without Making Problems about reflective listening.

₄              For more about the “Shame Shield” see Brene Brown’s free, 1-hour course on the subject at  Although this video course is designed for mental health professionals, the information is valuable for every parent to hear.

₅              This blog assumes the child has a history of feeling safe, cared for, and protected.  It should be noted that a fourth emotional state, fear, can also trigger the shame shield.  Children who have been neglected, abused, or traumatized can be highly defensive.  For more about childhood trauma, see




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