Real Questions from Real Parents
Backtalk, Name-calling and Disrespect:
Can This Family Learn to Get Along?

by Carole Banks, MSW PSL Advisor
Real Questions from Real Parents Backtalk, Name-calling and Disrespect: Can This Family Learn to Get Along?

Editor’s note: At the beginning of the year, we asked you, our readers, to send us real questions specific to your family’s situation. Our first article in our new series, Real Questions from Real Parents, deals with something most parents can relate to: backtalk, name-calling and disrespect. All questions are answered by a member of our Parental Support Line team; each one a professional who specializes in coaching parents on techniques from The Total Transformation Program.

My daughter tells me that I don't know anything; all her sentences start with “You are stupid.”

Dear Empowering Parents:

I have two children, a daughter who is 11 and a son who is 9. My husband is the breadwinner and I am a stay at home mom. Here is my problem: Neither of my children listens to any of my requests to clean their rooms, do chores, or study. When I ask them to do these things, they argue and talk back. My daughter tells me that I don't know anything; all her sentences start with “You are stupid.” My son is also very stubborn and refuses to do his work. I get tired of yelling at them and finally end up cleaning their rooms myself. My husband also has a very short temper. He tells our kids that they don't study enough and that they’re stupid. My daughter calls him names in retaliation, and then they yell at each other. I get stuck in between all three of them, and then my husband says our kids are spoiled because of me. I want them to learn to respect us and be responsible. What can I do?

—A Frustrated Parent

Dear Frustrated Parent: First of all, you are not alone. Many, many parents call us on the Parental Support Line and ask, “How do I get my child to stop calling me names and talking back?”

Related: Tired of backtalk?

In reading your question, I’ve identified a few areas where you are having difficulties right now. I’ve broken up your family’s situation into a few categories: name-calling, backtalk, disrespect and irresponsibility. The first thing we need to address here is the name-calling you describe.

Dealing with Name-calling

You mentioned that you want your daughter to stop calling you stupid—but you also said your husband is telling your kids that they’re stupid, as well. I understand that everybody gets frustrated and angry at times, but you and your husband have to find a way to control that—even if one or both of you has a very short temper. Make no bones about it, parents have to role model the behavior they want from their kids. There’s just no way around it.

I also want to note that when your daughter calls your husband stupid, she is employing a defense mechanism. Think of it this way: she could shrivel up inside and start believing that she really is stupid, or she could build a wall and bounce it right back. In some ways, your daughter’s choice is healthier than if she simply believed the criticism, even if her response is inappropriate. What you need to do is get together as a family and address your name-calling problem.

Decide not to engage in name-calling: The very first step here is to ask your husband for his support around this issue. Going forward, you first have to decide as a couple that there will be no more name calling. If it’s not appropriate for your kids, then your husband shouldn’t do it either. Talk ahead of time to make sure you’re on the same page, and present a united front to your kids. When you do speak to them, call a family meeting. If you try talking to your son and daughter alone, they’re going to say, “Well, Dad does it. Why can’t we?” So you and your husband have to say together, “No more name calling.” Tell your kids, “There is now a zero tolerance for calling people ‘stupid’ in this house.” You might also say, “We realize we’ve done this ourselves, but it’s not good and it’s got to stop. From now on, when we’re upset we’re going to take a break instead of coming out with something that’s not okay to say. And we’re going to ask you kids to do the same.” Continue to discuss with your spouse how you can support each other around what you’d like to see from your kids.

Related: How to get on the same page with a spouse.

Say these words: In the heat of the moment when your daughter is calling you stupid, try saying,You have to find a way to calm yourself down rather than use that language.” You don’t have to say much. The fact is, it’s better not to do a lot of interacting when your child—or anyone in your family—is angry. It’s impossible to have a real discussion when emotions are running high; it’s human nature to fight back or shut down. When you’re mad, everything you say in that moment is going to be angry. That’s not the time to teach the lesson you want your kids to learn. Instead, after you’re both calm, ask your daughter, “What can you say the next time you want to call someone in this family a name?”

Use a “Fine Jar”: I’ve also found that putting a fine jar on the kitchen table can be very effective. Every time someone calls another person in the family a name, they have to put a certain amount of money—let’s say 25 cents—into the jar. Because everybody is involved in this activity, there’s an acknowledgement that everybody is trying to change together: Dad does it, but Dad’s changing. This works really well for both name-calling and swearing, because everybody takes ownership.

Back talk

When dealing with back talk, I recommend that you first ask yourself what’s triggering the behavior. In other words, your daughter is not alone in her room talking back to herself. Somehow you’re engaging with her—and that interaction is very likely the cause of the problem. So first, think about what is starting the backtalk.

You need to say, “Hey, it’s not okay to speak to me that way; I don’t like it. And that’s not going to get your chores done.” Then leave the room. Don’t argue because you’ll get drawn into a power struggle. Think of it this way: your daughter can only argue with you if you engage in an argument with her. She can’t play tug-of-war with you if you’re not on the other end of the rope, pulling back.

Irresponsible, disrespectful kids? Stop rescuing them

I know that it’s tempting to step in and do your kids’ chores for them to keep the peace and put the house in order. But here’s the bottom line: when you clean your kids’ rooms yourself—and do their work rather than argue with them—you are teaching the wrong lesson. So part of what you need to do is stop jumping in and “rescuing” your kids. Instead, really define a task or a chore—and if they don’t complete it, they should lose a privilege that day as a consequence. Whatever you do, don’t do your kids’ work for them. If you want them to learn respect and be responsible, you can’t teach them that you’ll step in and fix things if they wait long enough. When you rescue your kids in this way, they don’t have to be responsible because you are doing the work for them. They’ll learn that if they just hold out, you’ll give up and give in.

Related: Stop doing their work and teach your children to be responsible.

Talk to your spouse: Again, you and your spouse need to talk together about what kind of goals you want for your kids. If your children are not cooperating with you during the day, establish with your husband that he will support you when he comes home. For example, after dinner, you and your spouse might have a problem-solving conversation with your kids if they didn’t do their homework that day. Remember, it’s the responsibility of both parents to establish house rules and give out consequences—not just your job. Your husband should still be there as a parenting member of the household. That way, when your kids misbehave, they’re disobeying both of you. That won’t erode your authority as a mom, rather, it will support you and the house rules. So it’s about getting on the same page with your spouse instead of assigning blame. On your husband’s end, he should be looking at the kids and saying, “Your mom told you to clean your rooms. We both expect you to do it. You have to spend an hour tackling that room in order to get privileges tonight.”

Remember, if you want your kids to respect you and be responsible, you need to hold them accountable for their behavior. If you don’t, you’re taking away their opportunity to become responsible adults some day. Always think about what you want your child to learn, and you can’t go wrong.

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Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.

READER'S COMMENTS

How about when my sons are disrespectful to each other and call each other names? It causes many fights and a strong dislike for each other. They are 12 and 8.

Comment By : A Woods

* Dear ‘A Woods’: Name-calling between siblings can be addressed in exactly the same way as name-calling from kids to parents. An effective response for you when your boys are calling each other names is, “You both need to calm down. Go to your rooms and try to do that.” After things calm down, talk to each son individually to explore what they can do differently the next time they are in that type of situation. Then use the fine jar concept explained in the article- this way there is literally a cost to calling each other names. This is a great way to hold your sons accountable. James wrote a great article on sibling rivalry that offers more helpful ideas: Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now). Good luck as you continue to work on this

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I appreciate the suggestion stating, “Hey, it’s not okay to speak to me that way; I don’t like it. And that’s not going to get your chores done.” I'm a single mom with two teens, and it seems that they would rather argue with me than do thier chores. I constantly have to point out that in the time that it takes to argue with me about not doing thier chores, they could've had their chores done! Thank you.

Comment By : luvmykidz

When I was little, my mother would put one of us on one end of the couch and the other on the other end of the couch until we calmed down. We couldn't talk or touch each other. Or she would make my sister and I face each other and tell one another that we loved them. Which was torcher within it's self, but after the forced hug and "I love you" it ended most of the time with us giggling and walking away. I agree on the idea of having a sit down to talk about what's acceptable and not acceptable, as long as it doesn't end up in an arguement right there.("dad this or but I that" kind of idea)In my house it appears we are all wound up against each other a lot. So if we can keep it on an even keel without pointing fingers, I think it will work. I am willing to try it! I need to...because it's making me so I don't want to come home and "deal with it" after a full days work. It's sucking the life out of me!

Comment By : exhausted mom and wife!

We successfully nipped name-calling among siblings in the bud with this consequence: If brother calls sister a name, he has to do her dishes (or whatever chore of hers)that night or soon. We even write it on the calendar so it's not forgotten. Sister is pleased because it makes up for the personal offense against her. Brother finds that it wasn't worth it. One time I even heard sister kiddingly say to brother, "Call me a name, would ya - I don't feel like doing dishes tonight." We've used this method for years and it has worked very well. Hope it helps... God bless.

Comment By : lamt

I have a high functioning autistic 17 yr old son who has been disrespectful and cursed me in the past. Those have been fewer and farther in between (no one is perfect) because of what I learned from the TT program - state what the consequences are and follow through. House Rules are posted on the fridge and privileges are listed and are taken away in that order - if behavior escalates even after I walk away, the privileges could even extend to taking away the cell phone (the most important privilege he has right now - not driving yet). It took a while but he is finally "getting" it. Pleasurable things in his life go away if he behaves that way. I pray for patience and persistence each night and wish you all luck. The TT staff KNOW what they are talking about. I thank them and recommend them to others all the time.

Comment By : Pam from PA

Great article and I know this stuff works but you have to be consistant. That is the key and it's easy to forget what we know how to do. It's hard when only one parent is on board with setting limits.

Comment By : masher

i have an 8 year old and a 5 year old. I found that reading this article with them was fun and they learned. The 8 year old says: let´s all have fun

Comment By : caki head

It's fine to say "don't rescue your kids" but I don't enjoy sharing my home with bugs and my son is a pig! If my husband doesn't get in his face and scream at him at the top of his lungs, he will just lay there with a smirk on his face. Nothing phases him, not even a stern warning from our local police department telling him that if he continues to defy orders, he will be removed from our home and sent to juvenile. So, yea, that's not going to work for us!

Comment By : TotallyHadIt

I feel that this advice is good when all members of the family accept accountability for their actions. However, what about a family where everyone has a gigantic ego and goes as far as he/she can to compromise compromise? A "fine jar" would get thrown in the trash in a family full of emotionally detached and spiteful people. What do you do in a family like that?

Comment By : Concerned

* To “Concerned”: Thank you for taking the time to comment on the article. You bring up some valid points. It can be difficult to get other people to take accountability for their actions and behaviors. Sometimes, what can be most effective is to focus on what you have control over and what you can change. Debbie Pincus talks a lot about the concept of “boxes”; that is, what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility. Here is an excellent article where this concept is discussed: Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry You may not be able to get someone else to take accountability for their choices but you can role model how it’s done. Through role modeling the appropriate behavior, you may be able to motivate others to take accountability as well. I hope this helps. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My son (18yrs)wont do anything unless he feels like. he does not want to take orders. I know he is intelligent but there is more to life than he realises.What can I do to help?

Comment By : Edith

* To “Edith”: What a frustrating situation this can be. I can understand your desire to motivate your son to make better choices. What we would advise is focusing more on holding him accountable for his choices than on trying to change his view of things. A great place to start with this is by first deciding what your rules and boundaries are within your house. James Lehman wrote an excellent series of articles on adult children living at home. There are many useful tools and tips discussed in the series that can be very helpful for your situation. You can access the articles by clicking on the following links: Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I , Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home and Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement? I hope this has been helpful. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

We have two boys 15 & 12, both very active in sports. Our concern with them is that the 15 yo is very disconnected from the family and generally shy to point of disrespect of adults around him. Athletic, but not really motivated to work hard in his sport. Does just enough to get by in school, b's mostly. How can I get him to show some love and or conversation with us and stop picking on his brother. The 12 year old is very close to me, but struggles with organization and yells at me when he is frustrated. He heard me say "I shouldn't have had kids or gotten married, I'm just not good at it. " Then the rifts that happen with the kids spill into trouble with my husband & I. Sometimes I feel like I've made so many mistakes that I can't turn back. How do I get my 15 year old to engage in conversation with us and the 12 year to be more organized and accountable for his actions. ANd help to keep the relationship between the parents strong?

Comment By : plane

* To “plane”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. I can hear how frustrating these behaviors are for you and your husband. It may be most effective to focus on one behavior at a time. It would be very helpful to talk with your older son about some different ways he can respond to his brother instead of picking on him. You can start off by asking him what he is thinking when that happens or what he is trying to accomplish. Then reiterate your expectations and talk about what he can do differently next time instead. When you see him starting to pick on his brother, remind him of the plan you came up with. If he chooses to pick on his brother anyway, have the above problem-solving conversation again and then restrict a privilege until he makes an amends to his brother or goes 30 minutes without picking on him. You can use a similar approach for helping your younger son becoming more organized. Here’s an article about problem solving for more information and ideas: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems." Teens can become less talkative with their parents and other adults as they get older. Try not to take it personally when he doesn’t seem interested in having conversations with you. It’s not uncommon for parents to disagree or have conflicts over how they parent. You’re both coming at parenting from two different backgrounds and perspectives, so there are going to be times when you disagree or have differences. What we would suggest is try not to have those disagreements or discussions in front of your children. It can be beneficial to present a united front when dealing with your sons. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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