Dealing with a child who’s talking back is aggravating, frustrating, and can make even the calmest adult lose their cool. Here are six tips for when your kids are talking back.
“You’re not the boss of me!”
“I don’t have to!”
Kids talking back is one of the most trying issues we face as parents.
Perhaps you’ve recently found your once angelic child talking back to you. You’ve tried scolding, time outs, and taking screen time or a prized possession away. But nothing’s worked. And your encounters with your child are increasingly escalating into arguments and power struggles.
You’re at your wits end and don’t know what to do.
Fortunately, you don’t need to resort to punishment to stop your child from talking back. And, in fact, punishment can often make the situation worse.
There are other methods to address your child’s back talk that will not only put an end to the attitude, but teach your child important life lessons and even strengthen your relationship.
Why back talk happens
Before addressing how to stop your child from talking back, it’s helpful to understand why they’re doing it.
Consider for a minute the life of your child – most of their days are directed by adults, be they parents, teachers or other guardians.
While kids feel security in these relationships, at times it can be frustrating to have so little power and control over one’s life. And with kids’ poor emotional regulation skills to boot, talking back feels like the logical way to assert oneself and test boundaries.
Other reasons why kids talk back include:
- Wanting our attention: some kids assume the only way to get our attention is by talking back. Even if this leads to negative attention, these children assume that negative attention is better than none at all.
- A symptom of other challenges: talking back can occur because your child is, for example, feeling exhausted after school or before bedtime or feeling conflicted about having a new baby enter the family. So take note of when your child is most likely to talk back and/or consider if your child is frustrated or confused by life events.
- Testing boundaries: kids learn by testing boundaries. Talking back could be your child’s way of trying to discover what is or isn’t an appropriate way to state opinions.
- Not knowing any better: maybe your child has seen another child or adult talk back and they assume this is simply the appropriate way to respond.
In all these cases, talking back is a normal part of child development where kids are demonstrating an assertion of self. We want our kids to confidently express themselves, but they’ll need our help learning how to do so respectfully.
Why shutting down back talk isn’t a good idea
While we want to guide our kids to more respectful communication, we’re not doing ourselves or our kids any favors by completely shutting down their opinions.
Responding to back talk with “Don’t you dare disrespect me!” or “Because I said so!” sends the message that kids’ opinions don’t matter. Which in turn, tells kids they need to suppress their opinions, or in other words, be blind followers, not individuals who think for themselves.
Research shows that when kids are permitted to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions with parents, they’re at less risk of peer pressure as well as being groomed for child abuse. So allowing kids to speak their mind is important in your relationship.
How to handle kids’ talking back
Finding the balance between letting kids express themselves while also being respectful may take a bit of work, but in time, will reduce shouting matches and power struggles.
When you find yourself in a situation where your child is talking back, follow these six tips:
Say “Can you please say that in a respectful way?”
It’s important for your child to realize that how they’re expressing their opinion is disrespectful. So as soon as your child talks back to you, calmly ask them to express themselves respectfully.
It can be helpful to follow this up with a few other statements such as “I don’t respond to anyone who yells at me.” or “We don’t talk that way to each other in this family.” Keep the focus on standards and rules, not on your child’s actions so they know this is just simply the proper way to behave.
And be sure that these rules do apply to everyone – including the way you talk to your kids and the way siblings talk to siblings.
If your child has trouble determining how to rephrase what they’re expressing in a respectful way, ask them if you can help. Then, suggest some alternative phrases they can use. When this is expressed with the motive of helping your child and not scolding them, they’ll be open to change.
Acknowledge what your child is saying
In talking back, your child wants to be heard and understood – which is essentially what all human beings desire. The issue isn’t that your child has an opinion or even an opinion that is different from yours. The issue is simply that they need to learn how to express this opinion in a respectful way.
Following up with a quick acknowledgment of what your child is thinking or feeling will begin to release their frustration and help them calm down. This acknowledgment isn’t a confirmation you agree with them but simply a signal you’ve heard and understand the point they’re trying to communicate.
Kids have a way of knowing exactly what to say to evoke strong emotions in their parents. Comments like “You’re not the boss of me!” or rude gestures like sticking out their tongue can set off any calm adult.
But reacting back to your child with snarky comments or rebuttals gives their actions weight, lets kids feel like those actions have an impact, and only invites more back talk in the future. What we model for our kids is more impactful than what we say so don’t be surprised if your child begins to mimic the behavior they’ve seen you express.
Instead, begin by taking a deep breath, and leave the room for a minute or two if necessary. Acknowledge what your child said and let them know that you need to calm down before returning to talk to them.
When you return, try your best to respond to your child’s antics with a calm demeanor. This will take some conscientious practice to not act on impulse but can vastly improve your interactions with your child in the long run.
Allow your child to calm down if necessary
No one can think rationally when they’re experiencing strong emotions, especially still-developing kids!
So just like you took a moment to calm down, let your child have a moment or two too. Since you’ve acknowledged the opinion they were so adamant about making, calming down should be a bit easier since they now know you have heard them.
To do this, tell your child you’ll sit next to them as they try to find calm. Avoid putting your child in a time out as this will only feel like punishment and fuel their desire to continue acting out.
Discuss the issue with your child
Once everyone is in a calm state of mind, and your child has had the chance to share their opinion in a respectful manner, it’s time to discuss the issue at hand.
There will be topics that are non-negotiable where you as the parent have to respectfully stand firm on the boundary or standard you’re enforcing.
But outside of these times, it’s worth considering if your child’s opinion or desire should be taken into account.
Sometimes simply because our child has expressed themselves in an inappropriate, annoying or even bratty way we instantly dismiss their desires. But the more we’re able to demonstrate that when they express themselves in a respectful way we’re willing to listen, consider their opinions and work with them toward a mutually beneficial decision, the more the talking back will diminish.
Remember – talking back is often kids’ way of asserting themselves simply because they don’t know a more effective way to do so. When they find that their words and opinions matter when spoken in a respectful tone, the more they’ll be encouraged to use that respectful tone in the future.
Review to reinforce learning
This step is optional and not always appropriate or necessary. But children often benefit from reviewing lessons previously taught.
Later in the day, far removed from the situation that provoked the talking back, respectfully remind your child the best way to state their opinion or needs. For example, a quick review at bedtime could serve this purpose:
“Remember how you really wanted to continue playing with Legos this afternoon but I said it was time to stop playing? I really liked how you were able to eventually ask me if you could continue playing in a respectful tone. And I’m glad we were able to find some time for you to keep building your tower after dinner.”
Example phrases to use when kids are talking back
Here are a few example phrases to demonstrate how you can both acknowledge what your child is feeling while also correcting disrespectful speech:
“You’re clearly upset that I won’t let you watch YouTube right now but I don’t talk to anyone who is yelling at me. Can you please express how you feel in a calm voice?”
“I know you’re angry that we can’t go to the pool right now, but it’s inappropriate to call me names and stick your tongue out because you’re mad.”
“It’s hurtful to hear you say you no longer love me because I won’t let you go to your friend’s house.”
“You want more crackers with your lunch. That’s fine. But the tone you used to express that wasn’t very respectful. Could you please repeat what you said in a more respectful tone?”
“I know it’s no fun to clean up your room. But you don’t need to express your feelings in such a disrespectful way. Could you please repeat how you feel in a respectful way? And then let’s try to find a solution that works for both of us.”
The valuable lesson of kids talking back
When your child is rude, sassy, or talks back in a bratty way it’s extremely aggravating to say the least. The sassiness and attitude can be grading. And the disrespect and rude gestures can set even the calmest parent over the edge.
But it’s helpful to look beyond the bad behavior (but not ignore it!) and recognize the opportunity for your child to learn a valuable lesson in that moment. Feeling confident to speak one’s opinion is invaluable – the key is knowing how to do so appropriately.
With a little patience and following the steps above, you can help your child grow into a confident, self-assured individual while also teaching them the valuable skill of speaking up respectfully.
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About Kerry Flatley
Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put these ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.