You: “You need to stop playing video games and do your chores. Have you taken out the trash yet? You promised you’d do that yesterday.”

Your child: “I’m in the middle of this game. Why do I have to take out the f—-ng trash? Do it yourself!”

You: “That’s it! I’m taking away the Xbox. I’ve had enough of your backtalk.”

Your child:  “Get off my back! Alright, I’ll take it out if it’ll shut you up! (Mumbles under her breath and slams the door on her way out.)

“If your child is talking back all the time and you’re not setting firm limits around it, make no mistake, you are training him to do it more often.”

When your kids start to talk back, you might as well welcome them to adolescence. Backtalk, however disrespectful and obnoxious it is in the moment, is your child’s way of learning how to assert herself. As every parent of a teen knows, adolescents often aren’t thinking things through; they’re just beginning to learn how to stand up for themselves, and most of the time they’re not going to do it very well. Your job is to help your child change rude behavior by teaching her how to state her viewpoint in a more respectful and appropriate way. This doesn’t mean she’ll always get her way—but she’ll eventually learn to voice her opinions without being disrespectful.

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Understandably, most of us become reactionary to backtalk. It’s annoying, it challenges our authority, and it pushes all our buttons. When this happens, the backtalk and our reaction to it can take on a life of their own. Suddenly, you’re stuck in a full blown power struggle with your teen. You’re angry and frustrated, and your child is fueling that fire by continuing to talk back until the argument escalates into a screaming match.

If it becomes a habit and your child is talking back regularly, it’s not healthy and you really need to start dealing with it. Sometimes parents let it go because they’re overwhelmed—they’ve already got so much on their plates and it becomes just one more thing to worry about. Sometimes they’re reluctant to intervene because they think their child will just get angrier. But simply avoiding backtalk doesn’t work, because then your child won’t learn how to express himself differently.

Choose Your Battles

I think it’s important to choose your battles. Let’s say your child is swearing at you and is also mumbling every time you give her a chore to do. You’re going to want to deal with both behaviors eventually, but the swearing is probably going to be more important to you than the mumbling. So start by setting limits and giving consequences for it, then move on to the next behavior you want to change. If you try to tackle everything at once, it becomes overwhelming and it’s easier for you to throw your hands up and give up.

You also may decide that mumbling is something you can put up with. My husband James always said that kids need an outlet for their anger just like we do. If they express their frustrations in a way that is fairly harmless—like mumbling or eye rolling—you might want to simply 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.

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When my son was in high school, he wanted to go to a concert out of state. His plan was to sleep in the car overnight with his friends. When we said no, he got angry and mumbled under his breath and ran upstairs and slammed the door. Now that wasn’t acceptable behavior by any means, but he didn’t punch walls and he didn’t do anything harmful. We chose to set the limit around the concert and not his response to being told he couldn’t go. We chose to manage the situation this way because it was more important for us to deal with the concert and the safety issues around it than his reaction to us. When he calmed down we were able to talk about it.

Define What Is—and Isn’t—Acceptable Behavior

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 he can and can’t do, and tell him what the consequences will be if he crosses the line. You might say, “If you swear at your sister, 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 his cell 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 are training him to do it more often.

Don’t Overreact to Backtalk

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 that important. If your child is behaving fairly well in other areas and is just starting to talk back to you, take it into context. You still want to set limits and be clear about what’s acceptable, but you don’t want to blow things out of proportion. By overreacting, you’re giving that backtalk more power than it really should have—and you’re giving your child more power than he should have.

Don’t Take Backtalk Personally

If your pre-teen is screaming and yelling, “I hate you! You can’t make me do it,” it feels personal, but it really isn’t—it’s just angry talk. Try to think about a time when your child has been angry and said things he didn’t mean. Imagine that’s what your child is doing when he’s yelling at you. It’s important to remember that no matter how upset your child is, he still loves you and needs your approval. Whether he shows it or not, he cares about what you say.

So don’t take it personally. As soon as you get into an argument and engage with the backtalk, it becomes your problem and deflects the responsibility from your child. At the same time, your maturity level sinks down to your child’s level and you become peers. It’s very likely that you’re going to overreact in this situation because you’re reacting to angry words instead of what’s behind those words.

Walk Away From the Fight

When tensions start to escalate and you feel yourself getting drawn in, it’s important to use the “acting stance.” Even if you don’t feel calm, try to act that way. 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 try to engage you, then you really 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. It certainly helps your child to have no one to backtalk to. She can backtalk to the cupboard, but it’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.

How we present ourselves makes all the difference with kids. If we don’t get involved in the argument, then we don’t take it on as part of our own problem. If we do, you start diminishing your child’s responsibility.

Set the Limits Around Backtalk

Set limits around backtalk in a firm yet gentle way. Say clearly, “I don’t accept you talking to me this way. This isn’t the way people talk to each other, and this isn’t the way we talk to each other in our family.” Or, “It’s hard to listen to you when you’re talking like this.”

Set clear, firm limits on what is allowed and not allowed. Be specific about what is respectful and disrespectful. Young teens especially really need to know that. They see things on TV that are pretty disrespectful but are made to look like they’re acceptable. Having that calm clarity and firmness about limits is really useful. Again, this is a test. You need to come through with clear rules about what kind of behavior you need to see. And keep reinforcing your rules as your child continues to test.

Giving Consequences for Backtalk

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 might decide not to give a consequence because you’re going to expect him to learn from it. If this keeps happening and you have set those limits and been very clear 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 verbal expectation but your child has chosen to break that rule.

Know Your Triggers

It’s important for you to know your own reactions, or the “triggers,” that push your buttons. There are probably things your child could say that aren’t going to affect you at all, but then there are other things that really upset you. In order 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’re the worst mom in the world. I hate you!”  Instead of overreacting by screaming or getting upset, take a deep breath and try responding in a different way. 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 will let go. This effectively takes away the power of backtalk.

As James said, “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” Take time away for yourself, giving your child clear directions that you’re going to come back and talk about this situation when you’re both calm. You could recommend to your child that while you’re taking time out, he could think about what he was trying to say in a respectful way.

Take a Time Out

Does backtalk and fighting tend to happen around the same time? If you find that’s the case, ask yourself a few questions. Do fights always seem to happen around homework or chores? Or do they occur when you’ve just come home from work, feeling stressed and overwhelmed?  I always made sure to have some break time between getting home and dealing with my son. I would either take a minute to decompress and change clothes after work before sitting down and talking again. Again, look at your own self in these situations and see what you might do differently.

Remember, for your child the lesson around backtalk is how to resolve conflicts, how to express anger and how to problem solve—in short, how to have a discussion about things, even when you’re angry or frustrated. And a discussion is when two people are listening to each other; they’re expressing themselves and coming to some shared closure, even if they don’t agree 100 percent with each other. Backtalk is not healthy. It’s generally talking at someone; it’s very one-sided and usually disrespectful. This is why you’re teaching your child not to do it—and why you’re setting limits around it. You want to handle this as objectively as possible, and view your role as that of a teacher and coach. As parents, we teach our kids to do so many things in so many different ways to prepare them to be healthy, respectful and responsible people. The lessons that you have to teach around backtalk often have a lot of feelings connected to them. But if you can teach your child healthier ways to express anger and show him how to problem solve, it diminishes the power that anger and backtalk have.

About

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™.

Comments (17)
  • Concerned Mum

    Hi I’ve got a 14 yr old boy who is in autism spectrum (not highly autistic, but very rigid thinking) , good at everything he does at school, very popular among peers/friends. Accadamically doing well. Unfortunately at home everything opposite !! Very out of control, talk back very dusrepecful way, doesn’t listen to any thing I say, (when I try to discipline him he would say ‘ I don’t care what you say, why should I listen to you’) if he wants something he will somehow get it!! Addicted to laptop (games and watching anime’). Some times doesn’t listen to his dad as well! Now I’m at a point where I have given up!! This affects his 12 yr old brother and specially 4 yrs old sister who watch and learn everything !

    Could you Pls help me and give some tips to change this behaviour!!

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I hear you. It can be so challenging when you have a child who refuses to listen or follow the rules, especially when you have other children who are observing this behavior. In a way, it’s a good sign that your son is well-behaved at school, because thisMore indicates that your son has the skills to manage himself appropriately. Now, it’s more a matter of helping him to apply those skills while he is home. As Sara Bean outlines in In Over Your Head? How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Regain Control as a Parent, it tends to be most effective to focus on only 1-2 issues at a time, such as screentime and following directions, rather than trying to change everything at once. You might find some additional helpful tips in “My Child Thinks He’s the Boss!” How to Get Back Control of Your Home. I recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Parent in Progress

    This is such a useful article. I have an emotional and confrontational 13 year old with ADHD. He has always backtalked and I find it very hard to handle. He was often in trouble at school for his inability to handle his emotions and I was regularly called with complaints from teachers about his behaviour. I have tried to be very strict about his behaviour, but I realize now that I am hypersensitive which leads me to overreact and escalate the situation instead of keeping my cool. I need to set a better example and not take it personally, for my own sake as much as his. I'm still not sure how exactly to enforce consequences which help him learn more appropriate communication, but at least I can stop feeling rung out and exhausted by the confrontations.

    Lots to think about. Thank you.

  • mrs.nelson
    My daughter is going 13 omg throw fits . Loud. And and see things only her way. I can't get her to do a chor once in blue moon. Mouthy. When I try to lay my foot down omg the fits come out. And this kid here's things notMore said or what she wants . She has some medical issues. And doc. Said to watch weight. And had too lose . So . If I try then she say I called her fat not what I said. Not even . She can be a great kid . I just want her to grow she not 4 fits need to stop .
  • Dulce Aguirre
    Hello my daughter is 12 years old and I don't see a door out. I've been having complaints at school of being disrespecting and giving attitudes as well at home.. i don't know how to handle this.I have punished her many times and I think is getting worse.. please helpMore I feel like I'm giving up to myself as a parent. It's only me and my 12 year olddaughter and my 9 year old son.
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      Many parents of adolescents feel frustrated with bad attitudes, disrespectful behavior and backtalk, so you are not alone in dealing with this type of behavior. While giving your daughter consequences is a useful way to hold her accountable, it’s not likely that this will change her behavior over theMore long term. This is because simply punishing kids doesn’t teach them the skills they need to respond more appropriately to similar situations in the future. You can find out some strategies to teach your daughter more effective skills in How to Respond to Disrespectful Children and Teens. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family; take care.
  • ConcernedMum

    Hi,

    I have a 14 year old son who chats with another girl at school when he's supposed to be doing homework. I tell him to stop every time, and yet I still catch him chatting in the study room all the time. He tries to deny it, but I can clearly see with my own eyes that he is chatting. He knows that I have been looking through his chats before and uses that fact to his advantage. 

    Any help or tips would be much appreciated. 

    Thanks!

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      ConcernedMum We hear from many parents who describe similar situations with a teen socializing instead of studying, so you are not alone in experiencing this with your son.  Part of addressing this pattern will be to continue to set clear limits around what your son is expected to be doingMore during study time, and providing additional supervision if needed.  Another aspect will be https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/ during a calm time, and discussing what strategies he can use to keep himself focused and on task when he is supposed to be studying.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • Swapna

    Hi

    I have a 12 year old boy , who is very good otherwise .... he is number one in acedemics but when it come to clean his bed , his cupboards, his study table he don't like mother (me) or his little brother who is 7 to touch his belongings , starts shouting. I as a mother says if u keep your belongings or stuff safely n neatly I wouldn't come to you at all. I ask him to take 5min of his time to do his chores on Saturdays , as he is busy with his after school programs.

    The biggest thing is he shouts n screams at me ( mother) .

    I including my husband are down with all the ideas n tips.

    Any help or tips would be much appreciated.

    Thank you

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Swapna 

      I hear you.It can

      be so frustrating when your child is successful and well-behaved outside of the

      home, yet yells and acts out with family.It’s also quite common for kids to avoid doing chores, and turn it into

      a power struggle.Part of changing this

      pattern will be to set a limit and walk away when your son starts yelling and

      shouting at you, so you are https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/avoiding-power-struggles-with-defiant-children-declaring-victory-is-easier-than-you-think/.You can find more tips in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/ill-do-it-later6-ways-to-get-kids-to-do-chores-now/.Please be sure to write back and let us know

      how things are going for you and your family.Take care.

  • CherylPruner
    I have a friend that is going thru a divorce and her two sons live with her, 12 and 14 years old. the 12 yrs old has adhd and is so mouthy lately and talks back to his mom, and the two don't appreciate her at all, they don't helpMore around the house, and after they come back from seeing their dad, the 12 yr. old has a crabby attitude toward the mother, and something is bound to happen. There has been many things said by the 12 yr.old to the mom, and I'm sure it's coming from the dad, because the 12 yr. old has told his brother to shut-up and also me to shut-up. His mom told him he was being very disrespectful and I told him "don't you ever talk to me that way again!". I am a good friend of their mom's and I'm always their when she needs someone to talk to, and she lives next door to me. Is their anything that I can tell her to help with her mouthy son, because his attitude needs to change, and straighten up? He'll also be rude when I go over there and I'm talking to his mom about things, too.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Honestlee 

    I hear your

    frustration with your 13 year old’s choices, and your concern for the safety of

    other family members as well as for yourself.  Although I recognize that

    your son is engaging in a lot of troubling behaviors, I encourage you to focus

    on one or two at a time rather than trying to address everything at once. 

    In this way, you can help yourself to avoid becoming overwhelmed and to remain

    consistent in your responses to his behavior.  Given what you have

    written, I recommend addressing your son’s abusive and unsafe choices

    first.  I encourage you to work with your son’s counselor to https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-lost-children-when-behavior-problems-traumatize-siblings/ if he is being abusive toward them,

    or posing a safety threat.  You might also find some helpful information

    in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/signs-of-parental-abuse-what-to-do-when-your-child-or-teen-hits-you/.  I

    recognize what a challenging situation this must be for you and your family,

    and I wish you all the best moving forward.  Take care.

  • Angerymom
    I have a 16 year old son. He overall has a sweet nature until I tell him no or put him on restriction. Then he turns into a gangster cussing at me. HE laughs at me when I cry at some of the hurtful stuff he has said to me.More He is under an attendence order to not miss any school and he has missed 5 days in last than month. I'm so lost and really don't have the skills to cope with his behavior. Can someone help me
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Angerymom 

      I’m so sorry to

      hear about the issues you are facing with your son.  Although I understand

      how much it can hurt to hear your son curse at you, I encourage you not to

      personalize this behavior.  The truth it, it’s probably not about you at

      all; rather, it’s more about his inability to cope appropriately with

      limits.  Sara Bean outlines some strategies to address these statements in

      her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/i-hate-you-mom-i-wish-you-were-dead-when-kids-say-hurtful-things/. 

      In addition, we often recommend allowing kids to experience the https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-you-should-let-your-child-fail-the-benefits-of-natural-consequences/ of their actions.  So, if your son is continuing to miss

      school despite the attendance order, I encourage you to work with the school to

      hold him accountable for his choices.  I recognize how difficult this must

      be for you, and I hope you will write back and let us know how things are going

      for you and your son.  Take care.

  • Dean
    I hate how my parents wont even let me state an opinion I try not to back talk and try to settle it in a civil way but they start yelling when I just wanted to state an opinion in a civil manner.
  • Aaron
    im 16 years old and i dont curse at my parents or the like but my father says i talk back whenever i have a different opinion..... why should i always get the short end of the stick in a conversation yes i get he is my father but doesntMore make him right one hundred percent of the time i have even searched up historical facts in an arguement about history and he said the internet is wrong banned me from video games for a week and said i back talked is that right.....
    • Honestlee
      Unfortunately, even if you are right, when you argue with your parents, it's considered talking back. As a minor, you have to follow their rules. In two years you can move out and follow your own rules. But be aware, your boss isn't going to enjoy an employee that's constantlyMore arguing with him either.
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