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How to Deal with Back Talk

 Don’t you dare talk to me that way! 

When a child is being verbally disrespectful, or as we called it in our home, “emotionally biting” someone, a parent’s defensive wall goes up and she screams right back! Most parents who are having loud, ugly words screamed at them would react. The question is, “is there another option?” Yes, there is.

First, let me say that I firmly believe that parents should not be disrespected, or have to endure any kind of emotional rudeness, but it does happen. Once it happens a parent feels like there’s only one thing to do to stop it: punish! I want to offer another way, one that not only stops the rude and disrespectful behavior in its tracks, but also teaches.

What Causes Disrespectful Behavior?

Remember when your baby’s cry was her only form of communication? Rude, disrespectful behavior is also form of communication. Verbal disrespect and rude words are a volatile expression of feelings that haven’t (otherwise) been verbalized. The feelings need to be released or all sorts of things may happen.

When a child is screaming horrible things at you, the first thing you need to be aware of is your desire to scream back, “Don’t you dare talk to me that way!” or “Who do you think you are?’ or “You’re g-r-o-u-n-d-e-d!”

I’m not going to lie; it’s hard, and it’s normal to want to retaliate. But screaming and punishing in response doesn’t address or resolve the original feelings that caused your child to be disrespectful. They don’t teach a child how to manage the intense tidal wave he or she is feeling. Punishing her makes her swallow her intense emotions, and will only cause those same feelings to erupt again in a different form.

How to Stop Kids from Being Disrespectful

Parents tend to think children get angry on purpose. Your child doesn’t know how she got so mad. Her anger is a mystery to her. It’s also a cry for help. To a child, being really mad feels scary, like she’s out of control and her feelings have a life of their own. When you say, “Stop it now,” she thinks, Okay, but how do I hold this tidal wave of feelings back? Please show me, don’t punish me.

Parents need to accept that intense feelings are part of growing up. You are their safe place; you need to teach your child how to deal with volatile feelings by doing it yourself. How? By showing her something other than reacting, retaliating and screaming at her.

1. First, stop it from escalating.

Imagine for a moment that a parent and a child are standing opposite each other. Stretched between them is a rope. As the child yells, she pulls on the rope and lets go. A tidal wave of emotion leaves the child and travels across the rope and hits the parent. Now covered in imaginary emotional goo, the parent pulls on the rope as she yells back. It becomes a tug of war, an emotional war.

In order for a parent to teach a child how to handle a tidal wave of intense emotions, the parent has to disengage and drop the rope, thereby stopping the tug of war, before any talking or resolution can begin.

This is the crucial turning point. You’ve stopped things from continuing to escalate, and have turned things toward resolution.

2. Stand fast until you get to the “crucial turning point.”

Your child will try to get you to reengage. She’ll scream mean words at you and she’ll be rude. Stay silent. Do not reengage; do not pick up the rope!

As soon as your child realizes that you’re not reengaging, she will also realize she was out of line. Now is the moment for action.  

3. Calmly reengage your child. 

You might say, “When you get this upset, you need to calm down first, hit something, and release your anger (though exercise, or whatever the rule is in your house) before talking to me.”

Once your child has released the anger, invite her to talk: “Now please begin with an apology and let’s talk about your feelings calmly.”

By dropping the rope and stopping the emotional tug of war, you’re able to get to the crucial turning point and turn things toward resolution instead of keeping the “war” going by yelling and punishment.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Discipline Consciously and Become the Parent You Want to Be, and the founder of Proactive Parenting. Her book and site help parents gain more patience by responding instead of reacting as they deal with the whirlwind of emotions created by raising kids ages 1-10. Keep up-to-date! Get parenting information sent straight to your inbox. Sign up today to get your free newsletter at Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.

15 Responses to “How to Deal with Back Talk”

  1. Peter Schott

    I know one of the things we started doing was looking for the trigger points, both for ourselves and for our kid so she can recognize them and stay away from them. I remember some of our training for foster care talking about avoiding escalation – easy to say, but harder to do. They told the story of one mom having one of these types of issues with a kid. The kid went upstairs and the mom followed – which resulted in an escalation. 🙁

    Of course, it all depends on the kid. Sometimes space is essential to let things calm down. Sometimes consequences become necessary, but we always try to leave a way out of at least some consequences. Discipline with no hope of a way to make things better is pointless as there's no reason to change the behavior if things are about as bad as they can get.

    I appreciate the tips. I hope we don't have to use these frequently, but they are good for these situations.

  2. charine

    I like this article some great advice. One that helps me is to count to ten very slowly. Doing so gives me time to think before I react.

  3. Heather M

    This article is great. I'm receiving a lot of back talk from my 4.5 year old. She is very bossy!

  4. christina L

    thanks for the advice. when my daughter gets so upset she hits us and throws things, i have a hard time staying calm, but my husband always says "do you want a hug" (she's almost 3) she starts laughing and gives him a hug, but when i try that she freaks out and trys to hit or pinch me. so different than my first who was an angel, i have a hard time knowing what to do with #2.

  5. Douglas Houston

    Very insightful, I have a 10 year old and sometimes his mouth gets ahead of his brain.

  6. Gina

    Very good advice. I feel that it could be used with other adults (such as family members you tend to fight with), not just your kids. It can be very hard but it's important for the parent not to lose control of the situation by becoming too angry.

  7. darlene bohannon

    its best to start out when they are young and make it known that you will not accept that kind of behavior. let them know it is disrespect and if they want the same respect from you,that is how they have to not act .talking with your children and communicating is the first step and hold true to your values

  8. Victoria

    I really like this part of the article: "But screaming and punishing in response doesn’t address or resolve the original feelings that caused your child to be disrespectful. They don’t teach a child how to manage the intense tidal wave he or she is feeling." This is so true. As hard as it is not to yell sometimes, screaming at a kid won't prepare them for dealing with teachers or even bosses when they get older. You can't lash out at all authority through life. Or else you'll be suspended from school or fired.

    I think about how much I didn't like being yelled at as a kid. I really don't want to put my child through a lot of screaming because it didn't do me any good as a child.

  9. Ann S.

    This is a great article and did provoke some long thought on my part. I have found that some backtalk is caused by my children testing the grown up water. Sometimes they like to push and it's my job to figure push about what and how far. So hard not to yell back though.

  10. Debbie Hogue

    I think your article is very valuable to parents. I myself refuse to engage my children in arguments and if they continue to push, I just walk into my room and close the door. That gives them the message that the conversation is ended and no amount of tantrum is going to bring me out of my room. When everything is calm, we can then continue to carry on as a family

  11. Suzanne W

    Great advice but very hard to do sometimes as we are all human… I am going to try this and see how it works. I tend to do a mix of this most of the time but I do slip and fire back sometimes.. Thanks for the good read.. : *)

  12. melanie dauterive

    This is very helpful and alot of Parents are thrown when it comes to back talk and they don't handle it the right way. i think knowing where its coming from is really important

  13. Valerie Mabrey

    I think sometimes just not giving them attention for bad behavior works the best.
    vmkids3 at msn dot com


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