Most kids go through phases where they are sassy, sarcastic, mouthy, or disrespectful. As a parent, it’s hard to know when to let it slide and when to address the problem. That’s why parents often ask me the following:
“How do you differentiate between disrespectful, sassy, or fresh language and abusive language?”
These behaviors are typically triggered by your child’s frustration, anger, and desire to get back at others when they think something is unfair. I believe that these behaviors are found on a continuum that I call the “inappropriate verbal response continuum.”
The extreme end of the continuum is verbal abuse. The middle is various forms of disrespect. And the mild end is annoying but not necessarily disrespectful behaviors.
This article will focus on how to handle kids in the middle and milder ends of the continuum. Nevertheless, I will begin by briefly discussing the extreme, verbal abuse end of the continuum.
The extreme end of the inappropriate verbal response continuum is verbal abuse. Abusive language is generally a personal attack upon another person. It’s meant to hurt the other person and make them feel small and afraid. Verbal abuse often includes foul language and threats of violence designed to intimidate the other person to get them to give in.
Kids who use abusive language and behavior want to attack you so that they can control you. These kids often don’t care about consequences and are not intimidated by them. For these kids, abusive behavior has to be handled very clearly and sternly.
If your child’s behavior is verging on or has already entered into the verbal abuse stage, please refer to the following articles:
Parents often ask me why kids talk to adults in disrespectful ways? I believe children and teens do a lot of things because they don’t know how to express emotions appropriately. To make matters worse, they learn a lot from watching other kids and people around them who don’t know how to express themselves appropriately either.
If your daughter is frustrated and doesn’t know how to show it, and she sees somebody else roll their eyes and make a face, she’ll absorb that lesson without even thinking about it. Then, the next time she’s frustrated at home, she’ll roll her eyes and make a face at you.
If she gets a reaction to her eye roll, that will often just reinforce the behavior because she knows she’s gotten to you. Don’t kid yourself: if you threaten your child by saying, “Don’t do that to me, young lady, or you’ll be grounded,” that will only make her do it more. Kids who act disrespectfully will not hesitate to push your buttons. It’s the one place in their young lives where they have actual power over someone.
When my son was in middle school, for some reason he went through a period where he said, “Yeah, right,” to everything in a sarcastic way. I responded to him once or twice, and the conversation went like this:
Me: “Please remember to put your clothes away.”
My son: “Yeah, right.” (with sarcasm)
Me: “Is something wrong? Why are you using that tone with me?”
My son: “What tone? I don’t know what you mean.”
Me: “I just don’t like the way you’re talking to me. The way you say ‘yeah, right’ sarcastically. Try to talk better.”
My son: “Yeah, right.” (with sarcasm)
His final response to me was disrespectful, but also a bit clever and funny in a teenager sort of way. I became a little frustrated and annoyed, but I also knew better than to show it. I didn’t want to empower that behavior—or necessarily stifle it. Instead, my wife and I allied ourselves together and were able to laugh it off. And, eventually, it wore itself out.
And that’s the important thing to remember here. If you respond to mildly annoying behavior in a strong way repeatedly, you give it power and strength. As your child gets into adolescence, they’ll start to find ways to push your buttons. And when you confront them, they’ll say very innocently, “What did I say? What did I do?”
I personally think that the less you challenge mildly disrespectful behavior, the less you give it power. Remember, the less power you give it, the more it’s going to die its natural death. That process is called “extinction” in psychology.
If you don’t respond to a behavior and give it power, the more likely that it will become extinct. It’s going to die out like the dinosaurs. But if you feed the behavior and play with it, you’ll only nurture the disrespect.
Keep in mind that if you suddenly stop responding to the behavior, they’ll initially use it more often in an attempt to get it to work again. This is normal and is a sort of last gasp before the behavior dies.
In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is challenge it inconsistently. Let’s say sometimes you let it slide, and then sometimes you confront your child. When you do that, those behaviors tend to become more entrenched. I understand that many times it’s not easy to ignore mildly disrespectful behavior. That’s why I think it’s helpful to vent to your spouse, a friend, or a relative about it.
In the middle of the inappropriate verbal response continuum is sarcasm. Kids generally manifest this in two ways. They either (1) make sarcastic comments when they feel under pressure, or (2) they use chronic sarcasm as a way to manage their angry feelings safely. By safely, I mean it’s safer to show their anger through sarcasm than it is through any other means they’ve learned.
Usually, sarcasm is learned and modeled by adults. For example, when adults are upset at their kid’s performance, they may make sarcastic comments. These comments are hurtful, and kids develop a defense to it by becoming sarcastic themselves. You’ll see kids who are cynical and sarcastic using that language in all areas of their life. Its function is to help them deflect any blame while downloading a piece of anger onto the person who’s the target.
Therefore, part of the response to sarcasm in kids is for the adults to speak differently. Personally, I think it’s funny when a comedian uses sarcastic humor, but it’s not funny when a child or an adult talks to me that way. It’s belittling and inappropriate. And it hurts healthy and honest communication.
All these mechanisms—sarcasm, disrespect, sassy talk—hurt communication. When you see this behavior, you have to ask yourself, “What’s being communicated that’s making my child respond that way?”
It’s usually not hard to discover what your child is threatened by that leads to sarcasm. Sometimes it’s a secret, sometimes it’s a task they haven’t completed, and sometimes it’s a power struggle. Whatever it is, once you’ve identified it, it becomes much easier to defuse.
When your child is using sarcasm, I think an effective thing to do is ask exactly what is going on:
“How come you get sarcastic whenever we talk about your homework?”
Asking in this manner is effective because it both identifies the issue and puts your child on the spot.
If your child then says, “I don’t get sarcastic when I talk about homework,” then say:
“Fine, then let’s keep going. I expect you not to be sarcastic.”
Or, if your child says, “I get sarcastic because you don’t understand,” you can say:
“It’s your job to make me understand. And sarcasm doesn’t help.”
Another very powerful way to respond to sarcasm is to simply say:
“Don’t talk to me that way; I don’t like it.”
And then turn around and walk away. When you walk away, you take all the power out of the room with you. If you argue or try to make a point, you’re giving your child more power.
Of course, simply saying “Don’t be sarcastic” is an appropriate response and is useful as a reminder to your child, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter the way that more pointed questions do.
When your kids use this kind of language with each other, I know it’s hard as a parent to stay out of it. But you may be surprised to hear that I think you have to try. Your kids need to learn how to stand up for themselves.
Believe me, they’re going to get it in the schoolyard, on the school bus, or in the classroom. No matter what, they will have to deal with it. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it good. But the bottom line is that they need to build up a callous to these kinds of comments.
Think of it this way: at the beginning of the summer, using a shovel hurts. You get blisters, and your hands are sore and tender. After a while, they get calloused, and then they don’t hurt anymore. That’s exactly what you want your kids to do with mildly sarcastic comments.
When something rubs your child the wrong way, try not to jump in there unless something is being said that’s abusive, disgusting, or demeaning. If that’s happening and your child escalates, intervene immediately and pull that child aside. Give them a choice of two things at that time: to either change their language or be removed from the group.
Calling your child aside is important because often the embarrassment of being corrected in front of other kids can cause them to escalate even further. Is it the end of the world if you give your child a consequence in front of the other kids? No, but I think those things are best dealt with privately. If your goal is to get them to change their behavior, separating them from others gives them a better chance of hearing what you’re saying.
Things that are not personal attacks or which are not meant to demean you can be handled by just trying to ignore them.
It’s easy and natural to become irritated when your kid says, “Duh! Nice one, Mom,” or “Duh.” This is where you have to draw the line between what kind of disrespect requires your attention and what doesn’t. “Planned ignoring” is the key here. Planned ignoring is the concept where you decide consciously to ignore attention-seeking behaviors as long as they’re not overtly harmful or abusive to others.
This is tricky because there are also terms that might be considered mild by some but which are actually put-downs that I believe you need to address. For example, when your child says, “That’s stupid,” to you, make no mistake—he means you’re stupid.
And by the way, when you tell your child, “That’s stupid,” and they say, “Don’t call me stupid,” you should apologize. If you say, “Well, I didn’t say you were stupid, I said the behavior was stupid,” your child is going to see right through that. Parent mistakes like this are an excellent opportunity to model an honest apology to show your child how to take responsibility for a mistake.
My advice is, don’t use the word “stupid” in a sentence when you’re dealing with your child unless you want them to feel stupid. There are plenty of other words that are not demeaning. And by the same token, if your child says, “That’s stupid,” you don’t have to say, “Are you calling me stupid?” You can just say very clearly:
“There’s no name-calling in this house.”
I believe there should be a consequence for name-calling. Set limits on it very clearly and hold your child accountable. Every time they say the word “stupid” to someone in the family, for example, they go to bed 15 minutes earlier or have 15 minutes less electronics time. They should be held accountable.
When you ask your child to do something, and they come back with “Do it yourself,” I think your response should be very clear:
“I’m not going to do it myself. I told you to do it, and you will have the following consequence until you do it.”
For younger kids, you might take away a toy until they’ve complied. For older kids, you might take away video games, TV, or their phone. In the Total Transformation Program®, I call this technique “stop the show.”
If your child gets rude and says, “I’m not going to do it; this isn’t my chore,” you can say:
“Well, I asked you to do it, and I want you to do it now.”
Don’t get into an argument about whose chore it is. If the non-compliance persists, then the show stops. In other words, whatever your child is doing is over for the time being. Have your child take a seat in their room without any outside stimulation such as electronics.
Understand that when kids get over-stimulated, they get stuck. So the first step in getting them unstuck is to avoid stimulating them by demanding things. Start by taking away all the stimuli that you can. Sending them to their rooms and shutting off electronics really helps.
Research shows that after three minutes with no stimulation, your child’s body slows down. So wait for a few minutes and then go in and talk with them. Don’t say, “Do you want to talk about it?” Sometimes we ask kids questions when we don’t really want them to make a decision. Instead, say to them:
“Let’s talk about this. I asked you to mow the lawn. You won’t be able to come out of your room until you agree to do it. Would you like to do it now, or do you want to stay in your room a little longer?”
And if they say, “No, I’m not doing it,” then say,
“Okay, let me know when you’re ready.”
And leave the room. If they want their privileges back, they will comply eventually.
These days, adolescents have less fear of being sassy, mouthy, or disrespectful to their parents and other adults in public. I think if they’re acting that way in public, then you can correct them in public. Say:
“Don’t talk to me that way; I don’t like it.”
If the rude attitude doesn’t stop, then take them to the car.
If your child is smart-alecky to other adults, you can use the same technique. Say:
“Don’t talk to Mrs. Smith that way; I don’t like it.”
If your child persists, you can say:
“Let’s go. Goodbye, Mrs. Smith.”
Then take your child and leave. By the way, if it’s another parent’s child being rude to you, I still think you can say,
“Don’t talk to me that way, Tommy, I don’t like it.”
Then turn away from them. Use simple, matter-of-fact language. Have a serious look on your face. You don’t have to look mean or angry, but don’t look like you’re cracking a joke either.
By the way, I don’t believe in giving your child a second or third chance when they’re nasty or rude to you. I think this creates bad habits in kids. From the time you start giving them chances, your child will say to themselves, “Well, the first one is free, so I won’t get in trouble if I call my mom a name.” I know it may be heartbreaking not to give your child a second chance, but that’s the best way for them to learn.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.