Does this sound familiar?
“Stop hitting your sister. If you don’t stop, you’ll have to go to your room.”
“You can’t tell me what to do!”
“I most certainly can! Now get to your room…or else.”
Backtalk can be terribly aggravating to parents, often evoking a strong emotional response. It feels hurtful and disrespectful, and we just want it to stop.
As parents, we all have our triggers: the things our kids do and say that set us off. And many of our triggers are related to backtalk and the shocking and hurtful things kids say when they’re angry. The child who says he hates you doesn’t really hate you, but is angry and uses this hurtful way to express it.
As long as your child is not being destructive, not threatening others, and actually following through on your direction, it’s okay to ignore some backtalk.
So it’s natural for us to respond emotionally to backtalk: screaming and yelling, bantering back and forth, using sarcasm, feeling victimized, or inconsistently ignoring or pouncing on our child for the same behavior. Sometimes we just give in to it. Other times we look to place blame elsewhere (e.g., she must have learned that from her cousin, or at school) and we don’t put the responsibility where it belongs: on our child. These are all ineffective parenting responses, but easy to fall into when backtalk is involved. Later, we’ll look at some more effective responses parents can use.
To Ignore—or Not?
In order to get a handle on the backtalk, we need to focus on our child’s behaviors instead of responding emotionally. When we are able to do so, we become our children’s limit setters, teachers, and coaches, promoting the kind of behavior that will make them successful in life.
When things are calm, let your child know that you didn’t like what he said and how he said it.
When responding to backtalk, it’s essential to use positive and effective parenting roles — and communication consistent with those roles — rather than responding emotionally. When doing so, you are modeling a more positive way to deal with anger and resolve conflict. For example:
When Backtalk Happens in Front of Others
When backtalk happens in your home, there may be times when you want to remove other family members from the situation. Their presence is not likely to be helpful, especially if the backtalk is veering toward a full-blown tantrum. Getting your child away from others (e.g., in his room), or removing others from the immediate area will help him to calm down. It also lets him know that this type of talk is not acceptable to other people.
If your child talks back to you in public, you can respond similarly: reduce the onlookers. This may mean having to leave the area, but getting the child away from the public activity will give them some time and space to calm down and regroup, if necessary.
It’s hard in these situations; we feel so embarrassed by our child’s behavior and judged by others. Whether at home or in public, it’s helpful to remember the three effective parenting roles we discussed earlier. In a calm and business-like manner, set the limit, give a direction, and disconnect from any emotional response: “If you don’t stop talking to me like that, we will leave this store right now, and you won’t get those new jeans you wanted.” When your child is calm, reinforce what will happen if the behavior reoccurs, and be prepared to follow-through.
You Can Start to Change Your Response to Backtalk at Any Time
Intervening more effectively with backtalk is something a parent can start to do at any time. Try to be as objective and honest as possible about the behavior—and your response to that behavior. What has worked in the past? What hasn’t worked? Do you have a trigger that brings out an emotional response? Where can you begin to change?
As you use more effective parenting responses, you will begin to shape your child’s behavior. That doesn’t mean that he will immediately thank you for responding differently and stop talking back to you! But with limits, teaching, and coaching, he will begin to find better ways of reacting to your directions or requests.
As you start setting limits, your child may push the limits further; just stick with it. Once your child realizes you mean business, and are willing to follow-through on the consequences, behavioral changes will occur over time. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but with gradual steps, there will be improved behavior and you’ll relate to each other better.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.