Is your child talking back to you? Sometime during the “tweens,” children will begin to assert their independence in a way that drives most parents crazy. One day their son or daughter was generally respectful and compliant then seemingly overnight they wake up one day to hear their child say something like, “Why? This isn’t fair!” or “You don’t trust me!” or “Everybody else’s mom lets them do it,” and the phase of talking back has begun. Talking back can also be referred to as arguing back or sassing, but nevertheless it is a common concern among many parents and guardians.

Why do kids, who are obviously not adults and are still under the care and responsibility of their parent or guardian, start to talk back to those in authority? Part of the reason is developmental. They are transitioning from straight-forward, literal language to more sophisticated ways of communicating including sarcasm, irony, and word play. They take these newly developed ways of speaking and try them on for size. They feel smarter and more grown up. As children move toward adolescence they begin to assert their sense of independence and “test the waters” so to speak. Another reason our children move into this talking back phase may be because sometimes they are unsure of how to deal with intense emotions such as anger and frustration. At times they may feel overwhelmed as the anger overtakes them like a tidal wave, leaving them feeling out of control. It can feel foreign and even a little scary to them. They use talking back as an attempt to regain control of the situation that is making them angry, especially if they aren’t sure of more appropriate responses to anger.

There are several strategies to handle a child who is talking back:

Be proactive

First, set some clear limits and ground rules about responding respectfully and learning to accept no for an answer. Explain examples of acceptable responses and be sure to model those responses yourself. Kids are keen observers and parents can quickly lose credibility if they aren’t practicing what they are preaching, so to speak. It is also a good idea to anticipate situations where your child may begin talking back to you when their friends are present. They may do this to show off in front of their peers, but calling them out on it directly in front of their friends can backfire, potentially causing the situation to escalate and creating a loss of trust. Perhaps a pre-determined signal can be established that will remind your child they are close to crossing the line with their responses yet are able to “save face” in front of their friends. Why is this important? Tweens and teens highly value their friends. It is not that they don’t value their parents, but friends become a higher priority for them now. By having a discussion beforehand you show that you are willing to give them some respect while expecting respect from them in return. Another way to set some groundwork is to make sure you are praising polite responses and times when they accept “no” in an acceptable way. Finally, allowing creative outlets for anger can help prevent some instances of disrespect and talking back. One idea is to actually allow a predetermined time for them to talk back to you (within reason, of course; no name-calling or blatantly disrespectful language). During this time your child can question you and whine about the situation, and this will help them vent and release some frustration. This can be a 5-minute segment of time, but when the time is up they must stop or consequences will be delivered. In the end children must obey your directives as the authority figure in the home. This skill is crucial because there will always be authority figures in their lives in the form of bosses, law enforcement, etc.

When it happens

Whenever situations of talking back begin, sometimes the best response is a non-response. If you ignore certain comments, such as muttering under their breath, then you won’t be engaging your child into a verbal battle and the situation shouldn’t escalate. There will be times when you must respond but make sure you keep your composure. A parent in control emotionally speaks volumes. It shows your child that even in the face of trying situations, emotional control is paramount. They learn to emulate your responses. It is also important to pick your battles. Sometimes it is best to ignore a comment and sometimes a response is warranted. Refer to your pre-set limits and ground rules to decide how to deal with the talking back. If a verbal battle does ensue then take a time out. Emotional escalation won’t do anyone any good. After a cool down, you and your child can communicate heart-to-heart about the earlier incident.

Plan for next time

After your child has talked back to you and both of you have had some time to cool down, encourage dialogue with your child. Through constructive communication you can define the problem and talk about how to rectify the situation and prevent future back talk. Sometimes there can be a compromise and other times your authority must stand, but be sure to explain why and ensure that they understand the reasons. You can work as a team to improve respectful communication.

What else?

If current communication and consequences aren’t working, step up the consequences so that the talking back does not become habitual or more severe. Also, try to figure out if there is a root cause aside from the normal testing of limits common for this age. Perhaps there is some underlying reason that you aren’t aware of. If you determine that he or she is acting out due to certain changes or circumstances that concern you, consulting with a counselor could be very beneficial. We at Lee Counseling Services are available to help. Please give us a call today with any questions and to schedule an appointment today.

(682) 514-9225