Some degree of backtalk is normal for adolescents and teens—it’s how they learn to assert themselves and become independent. But too often, they don’t assert themselves appropriately, and their backtalk becomes disrespectful and obnoxious. At this point, parents need to take action for their own sanity and for the sake of their kids, who need to learn to assert themselves appropriately to become well-functioning adults.
Some parents let backtalk drag them into heated fights with their child. Other parents let it go because they’re overwhelmed—they already have too much on their plate, and it becomes just one more thing to worry about. Some parents are intimidated by their child. But if your child is talking back regularly, it’s not healthy, and you need to start dealing with it effectively.
I want to distinguish between backtalk and verbal abuse because people often confuse these two very different things. If your child has started saying hurtful or harmful things, the line between backtalk and verbal abuse has been crossed.
For instance, if a child is cursing you, calling you names, or threatening you, that’s verbal abuse. In contrast, if your child is saying, “This isn’t fair, you don’t understand, you don’t love me,” that’s backtalk.
Verbal abuse is a very negative behavior and has to be dealt with aggressively and upfront. It’s not that backtalk is harmless, but it’s certainly not as hurtful and hostile and attacking as verbal abuse. For parents dealing with verbal abuse, I recommend the following article: Kids Who are Verbally Abusive: The Creation of a Defiant Child.
Backtalk itself can take several forms. One form comes from the child who can’t keep quiet. No matter what you say, they have to have the last word.
And then there’s the child who wants you to understand their point after you’ve already said “no.” It’s easy for kids to get into the mindset of, “If I could just explain it better, you’d understand my situation.”
So you’ll get kids who present their problem or request repeatedly in the hopes that their parents will give in. If their parents don’t give them the answer they want, those kids will then try to re-explain, as if the parent doesn’t understand. Often, as they launch into their explanation for the third or fourth time, the child and the parent will both get more frustrated until it ends up in a shouting match.
The first step to stopping backtalk is to talk with your child during a quiet time and lay down some ground rules. Discussions about these rules are critical to good communication and cooperation down the road.
Your goal then becomes following the ground rules instead of trying to achieve your child’s acceptance.
The first rule is:
“I’ll explain something once, and I’m not going to talk more after that. If you try to argue or debate, I’m going to walk away. If you follow me or if you continue to talk back, there will be consequences.”
I guarantee that you’ll feel better as a parent if you set up rules and follow them with your children.
If swearing or being rude is not acceptable, state that clearly to your child. Do this during a calm time. Let your child know exactly what they can and can’t do, and tell them the consequences for crossing the line. You can say:
“If you swear at me, I’m taking your cell phone away for 3 hours. If during that time you swear again, that 3 hours will start over again.”
That way, you’re helping your child work towards good behavior by earning their phone back.
Sometimes parents avoid dealing with backtalk by not being clear about expectations and by tiptoeing around their kids. If your child is talking back all the time, and you’re not setting firm limits around it, make no mistake, you’re training them to do it more often.
Set your limits around backtalk in a firm yet gentle way. Say clearly to your child:
“I don’t accept you talking to me this way. This isn’t the way respectful people talk to each other, and it isn’t the way we talk to each other in our family.”
Or you can say:
“It’s hard to listen to you when you’re talking like this.”
Be specific about what is respectful and disrespectful. Young teens especially need to know this because they see highly disrespectful things on YouTube, social media, and from their peers that are made to look like they’re acceptable. Therefore, having that calm clarity and firmness about limits is crucial. And remember to reinforce your rules as your child inevitably tests the limits you set.
Most of us will lose our cool and overreact to backtalk at one point or another. We’re overwhelmed, frustrated, and tired of our child’s attitude. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to have an extreme reaction to something that isn’t particularly important.
Therefore, if your child is behaving reasonably well in other areas and is just starting to talk back to you, go easy on them. You still want to set limits and be clear about what’s acceptable, but you don’t want to blow things out of proportion.
Just know that by overreacting, you’re giving the backtalk more power than it should have—and you’re giving your child more power than they should have.
If your child is screaming and yelling, “I hate you! You can’t make me do it,” it feels personal, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s just angry talk, and it’s a behavior problem, so don’t make it a personal problem between you and your child.
Try to think about a time when your child has been angry and said things they didn’t mean. Imagine that’s what your child is doing when they’re yelling at you. It’s important to remember that no matter how upset your child is, they still want your approval. Whether they show it or not, they care about what you say.
So don’t make the backtalk about you and don’t engage with the backtalk. As soon as you argue and engage with the backtalk, you give the backtalk more power than it deserves, and you’re less likely to stay calm and respond effectively.
When tensions start to escalate, and you feel yourself getting drawn in, it’s important to stay calm. Even if you don’t feel calm, try to act that way. How we present ourselves makes all the difference with kids. If we don’t get involved in the argument, the argument often dies from neglect. You can say:
“I’m not going to talk with you right now. We’ll talk later when you’ve calmed down.”
If your child continues to badger you, then you need to step away from the situation. Leave the room, or go for a drive if your child is old enough to be left alone.
When you walk away, your child is left without an audience for their backtalk. They can backtalk to the wall, but that’s not going to have much effect. If you’re not there, that target isn’t there for your child. It also allows you time to calm down.
To change your response to your child, you need to know yourself. For example, in the heat of the moment, your child might say something like, “You are so unreasonable! I hate you!” Instead of overreacting by screaming or getting upset, take a deep breath and try responding differently. Stay calm, state that you will talk later, and walk away.
If you’re in the pattern of getting into arguments or reacting in a charged way to backtalk, and all of a sudden you do something different, it shows your child that behavior can change.
It can be very surprising to kids when you respond differently. Sometimes your child might try to push you further, but when they realize they’re not going to get a reaction out of you, they let it go, and you’ve taken away the power of backtalk.
Why do parents react to backtalk after they’ve already won the argument? I think parents often see it as their job to always respond to their children. And backtalk is an invitation to do just that. Just as the child re-explains things to the parent if they’re told “no,” the parent often tries to re-explain things to their child if they talk back.
Often, the parent’s mindset is, “If you truly understood what I was saying, you wouldn’t talk back to me—you’d accept my answer.”
Or, the parents see backtalk as a challenge to their authority that requires a response. Either way, as long as you accomplish your objective, the fact is that your authority is fully intact.
Here’s an example:
Your child: “Can I stay out until 10 o’clock tonight?”
You: “No, because you have to get up early tomorrow for soccer practice.”
Your child: “Who cares? I don’t need that much sleep.”
Stop right there. Any further conversation is just you defending your judgment. But that’s the wrong objective because it addresses an entirely different issue—whether or not you made a good decision.
So, once you give a reasonable explanation for the rule you’ve stated, your job is done. You can repeat it if need be, but you’ve already won the fight. Leave it at that—anything more just undermines your authority.
Remember, your job as a parent is not to get your child to accept the logic of your decisions—you just need them to follow the rules.
If your child truly wants to argue with you about the rules, another option is to set up a specific time when your kid is allowed to talk back to you. Say to your child:
“From 7 to 7:15 tomorrow evening, you can ask me to re-explain all my decisions. Save it for then. You can make all your complaints, as long as you do so respectfully. But at 7:15, our discussion is done. If you try to keep it going, there will be consequences.”
That way, if you feel like you want to give your child an outlet to air his or her grievances, there’s a way to do it without getting bogged down in constant arguing.
Remember, just like us, kids have good days, and then they have days when things don’t go their way. Don’t try to fight the everyday disappointments that all kids experience. They will use backtalk to get their way, but you have to accept that they will not always be happy with your decisions as a parent.
Your job is to set the rules and enforce them because those rules are for your kid’s development and safety. Whether they like those rules or not, they have to learn to live with them.
Whether or not you want to give consequences for backtalk depends on the situation. Let’s say it’s the first time something disrespectful or rude ever flew out of your kid’s mouth. You’re probably going to set a limit and say, “This is not okay,” but you might decide not to give a consequence because you don’t expect them to do it again.
But if it keeps happening, and you’ve set clear limits about what’s allowed, then it makes more sense to look at consequences. You’ve done your part as a parent, you’ve set a limit, but your child has chosen to break that rule.
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
Choose your battles wisely and focus on one behavior at a time. Let’s say your child is swearing at you and is also complaining every time you assign them a chore. You’re going to want to deal with both behaviors eventually, but the swearing will probably be more important to you than the complaining.
Therefore, start by setting limits and giving consequences for the swearing, then move on to the next behavior you want to change. If you try to tackle everything at once, it becomes overwhelming, and you’re likely to give up altogether.
You also may decide that complaining is something you can tolerate. My husband James always said that kids need an outlet for their anger, just like we do. If they express their frustrations in a reasonably harmless way—like complaining or eye-rolling—you might want just to ignore it.
The bottom line is that every family is different. You have to decide for yourself what you will and won’t put up with from your kids.
And remember, for your child, the goal should be for them to learn to resolve conflicts, express anger, and problem-solve appropriately. In short, the lesson is how to be respectful even when they’re angry or frustrated.
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™.