Children sometimes speak in disrespectful ways. They may use a sassy tone, inappropriate language or simply offer back talk instead of cooperation. Behind back talk is usually an important message.
Heather, a mom to 8 year old Isaac shared this:
“My son often replies badly to me when I make a request. For instance, if I say “please hang up your coat” he might say “you do it.” Or worse “whatever, I don’t wanna”. Please tell me how not to lose my cool when he does that??
To stop back talk it helps to understand what back talk is and why it keeps happening.
So, why do children use “back talk”?
Here are some of the most common reasons children may speak in a way that may be considered “back talk”:
- repeating how they are talked to
- feeling discouraged
- reflecting with hurtful words that they feel hurt
- to test their own power
- to get a reaction
- mistaken way to ask for attention
Understanding Back Talk and How to Stop It
“Whatever, I’m done with this!” is Repeating & Mimicking
If your child speaks with disrespect often, it may be helpful to pause and listen to the tone of your own requests. It’s easy to give orders, especially under a time crunch. The thing is, our actions and tone speak much louder than our actual words. If your child often “back talks” you can try modeling the respectful tone you wish to hear.
For example, this may sound like “we are super short on time, I apologize if it feels annoying to be rushed, I really need us to work together and quickly!” or “I’m running out of patience. I will take a break, and be back in a few minutes.”
“Not doing it, I can’t anyways” is Discouragement
Discouraged children often back talk and don’t cooperate. To fix this, in the moment, pause and try to reconnect and validate. “You sound concerned that you can’t do it? Did I get that right? How can I help you?” or “What if anything could you start with?”
Long term, consider if you are using discouraging language or put-downs like “you never help around here” or “why am I not surprised this didn’t get done”
Aim instead for encouraging words, breaking requests down into smaller steps and look for progress. This might sound like: “I appreciate your help” and “I notice you put one shoe away, thanks! I Would love to see the second one put away as well.”
“You can’t make me!!” is seeking Power
When children back talk to take back control of a situation, it means they need some positive ways to feel more secure and in charge of their own lives. What it often sounds like is “You can’t make me.” or “No, no, and I’m not going to even if you want me to!” What it really means is “I want to have more choices here” and “I feel pushed around”
It is by returning appropriate power to children that we help them stop the back talk and appreciate responsibility.
What you can try: Give choices that are appropriate and that you can accept, involve your child with family jobs and allow for natural consequences instead of stepping in the prevent or control outcomes.
“I hate you!” or “Go to hell!” is code for getting a Reaction or More Attention
It can be startling to hear such strong words when asking a child to do something. Before you lose your cool, try to hear this as a message of “you don’t get me right now” and “I need some loving guidance”
This isn’t to excuse rudeness but instead to hear the hidden message. In this moment we as parents have a choice! We can model two kinds of communication in such a moment: back talk or setting boundaries.
Back talk from us sounds like “How dare you young lady! Well I hate you too! Fine! Don’t help, you’ll see what that gets you.”
Setting boundaries sounds like “I hear you are upset. I will give you space to cool off. Come find me if you want to talk, I’m happy to listen to you.” OR “I feel hurt when you speak like that, I trust you to do what is right. I’m going to my office (kitchen, room, den…) and we can talk later.”.
The most important lesson in back talk is to help children realize that it’s not effective, polite or a respectful manner to communicate.
Teach your child how to communicate their needs well. The aim in stopping back talk shouldn’t be to take your child’s opinions and needs out of the picture. Much to the contrary, it should be to help them instead learn how to politely disagree and make their needs known.
Learning that comes from punishing back talk or engaging in it ourselves leading to more power struggles. Back talk goes away when we use it as a signal that our child needs something: guidance, healthy doses of power in their life and our encouraging, loving presence.
Peace and be well,