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Tips for Responding to Back Talk

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How to Respond to Back-Talking Child

Is your child rude or lippy? Do they talk back to you? Have you ever thought, “I would never talk to my parents the way my kids talk to me”?  What’s going on?

Speaking rudely to a parent in the old days was considered a sign of disrespect, and you were punished for it. Historically, parenting was characterized by respect flowing only upward.  Even the name “back talk” implies it’s wrong to reply. Instead: I talk – you listen and take it.

Since the spread of democratization, the millenial era children are born into a world that embraces the tenant of “respect and dignity for all.” Today’s children have come to understand that regardless of gender, race, religion or age, people have the right to be treated with respect.

In my experience, children who talk rudely to their parents are children who are spoken rudely to by their parents. It’s retaliatory in nature and says, “If you are rude to me, I will be rude to you.”   Tit for tat.

It’s very difficult for parents to learn ways to be firm in their discipline (establishing and enforcing appropriate limits and boundaries, etc.) without degrading or demeaning their child.  In fact, it’s so commonplace to talk down or talk rudely to our children we don’t even notice it anymore!

What to do instead?

1) Watch your own tone, language and keep your own words sparse and positive.

2) Visit this site or my books to get assistance in applying non-punitive discipline tactics.

3) Our words become weapons in times of conflict.  If things start getting harsh, simply state, “I want to talk about this in a respectful manner and that seems to be difficult at the moment. Let’s take a break and come back to this when we can approach it more respectfully.”

4) If they flip you some attitude, you can acknowledge their feelings with active listening, but there is no need to comment or punish their rudeness:

Child: “Why do we have to go? You always ruin my fun….. Jerk.”

Parent: “You want me to know you’re angry at me.  I am sorry if I come across like a party-wrecker. Can we talk later about how to make sure you are able to find more of the fun you’re looking for?”

5) Discuss at a family meeting how the overall tone of communicating in the family seems to be slipping into disrespect and brainstorm together ways to improve the situation for all.  It’s important that children have a response for when parents are being disrespectful and not just address the children’s rudeness.

Our family has a code. We say “Level 3” or “take it up a level,” a term coined from my children’s involvement in the Me to We movement and striving for higher ideals.  Some families have a signal like pulling their ear lobe when they notice tone.

The important part is the process of discussing and co-create what your family would like to do. Ask your family, “What kind of a family do we want to be? Because we get to decide for ourselves. Do we like living with this amount of rudeness to one another?” What can we do together to improve matters?”

When respect is restored, the back talk will cease.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

7 Responses to “Tips for Responding to Back Talk”

  1. C.Howell

    Hi Alyson
    Liked the article very much and found it helpful for when the time comes and my grandchildren are rude to me.isn’t so much rude or disrespectful per se as she is ‘dismissive’ and I find THAT one very difficult to deal with because I can’t see where any of your solutions could com in to play in this case.
    Also, just thought I might mention there are two typos in the body of the work: “4)…listening but [their] THERE is no need to ….”
    3rd para: “…children are born into a [word]WORLD that embraces…”
    Thanks for your article.
    C. Howell

  2. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Carolyn,
    Thanks for the comment and catching the typos! I fixed them. If you give me an example of a scenario where it lead to being dismissed, I’ll try to offer help.

  3. C.Howell

    Hi Alyson
    It’s been a while since I wrote and checked your site. I was referring a friend’s daughter to your web to check up on your book titles and decided to go on myself.
    Thanks for your May 2 reply.
    An example of a ‘dismissive’ scenario:
    Me and child playing a game and having fun [both of us laughing and chatting it up]
    me: Okay, sweetie, time to think of packing up….5 minutes okay?
    child: [no response]
    me: [5 minutes later] Time’s up. Let’s pack up. [child leaves the area to do something else]
    me: come on kiddo; help me put the stuff away.
    child: [no response]
    me: let’s go – now- stuff has to get put away!
    child: [gets up and gives a back wave as she/he walks away]
    Obviously the child is upset but how do you handle this?
    PS: I noticed that I, too, had typos (com vs come)so I will refrain from any comment in the future. I used to be a proof-reader but obviously not for myself.

  4. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Carolyn,
    I would move to imposing a choice / consequence tying freedoms and responsibilities together: If you would like to play here again, you need to show me you can clean up. If not, we’ll have to pass on coming to play here next time. Or, you could try a when____ then___ statement if you are at home: YOu can’t get her to clean up what she was playing with at that exact moment, but you can move on with your day, and when the time is right, ( say she asks for a video) you can say “when your toy clean up is done then I’ll know your ready for the next activity” NOTE: that only works if you have established a routine of cleaning up as you go, or the routine of cleaning up before snack time etc…
    Hope that helps!

  5. Ana

    I appreciate this article. I recently read your book (Honey, I Wrecked the Kids) and am working hard on implementing some changes. Disrespectful talk continues to be challenging for me to figure out how to deal with. I do see that I have a part in this, and that I have to watch carefully my tone and my words, and that change will take time. But my question is, is it reasonable to say that in our household, there are certain words that are just off limits? This has been our language in the past. “I hate you” is not acceptable language in our house. Nor is it okay to tell someone you want to kill them. Basically, since reading your book, instead of a time out or other punishment, I’ve been saying something along the lines of “I can see you’re really angry, but those words aren’t allowed in our house. Would you like to talk about it now, or do you need to go cool off for awhile?” If the language doesn’t improve, then I make the choice that my son needs to go cool off for awhile in his room. But it feels like there’s a pretty fine line between a logical consequence (you can’t be around us when you use language like that) and punishment (I’m choosing that you need to go cool off in your room). I feel like my son still sees this as punishment.
    Recently, his friend was over playing and he used some of that language. I immediately asked him to come inside away from his friend. Then I talked with him about another way to let his friend know that he didn’t like the rough play that was going on. In a few minutes, he went back out and continued playing with his friend. Was I lecturing? punishing? I’m really struggling with feeling that acknowledging his feelings and ignoring the language just condones that inappropriate language is a way to express feelings. I’d love any further advice you have about that!

  6. Alyson Schafer

    Our words become weapons in times of conflict. Try to help them with other ways of solving the conflict. The language will take care of itself when the underlying problem is resolved.
    You did a great job of acknowledging feelings and re-directing with ” how else could you let your friend know you didn’t like the rough play?” When we say ” we don’t use words like that in this house’ children laugh and say “yes we do! I just did!” and then our rules look foolish.
    I prefer walking away myself saying ” I don’t like listening to that harsh language” or put them in the same boat ” you both need to take some time apart in your rooms” ( but not for swearing – for not getting along).
    I hope that helps.
    Deciding to not use certain language is ultimately a social agreement – voluntarily upheld, and I doubt being sent to a room will increase an upset and angry child’s choice of using harsh language when fighting.

  7. Sara

    Would love your help! I’ve read all your books and recommend them to everyone as they just make sense! Unfortunately we are dealing with an issue we just can’t seem to figure out. My son is 2.5. He has always been a sweet and easy going child. He has great language skills (uses full sentences). Recently he had a horrible bout of the flu that ended up in pneumonia. It was the worst three weeks ever. Well, since then, he has become extremely bossy and changes his mood on a dime.

    For example, he’ll say he wants to play with a certain toy on the floor. We will grab the toy and go sit on the floor. All of a sudden he’s yelling at us that we aren’t siting in the right spot. We have tried ignoring it, saying it’s not nice to yell (which he promptly says “please” and then starts yelling again if we don’t do it), or getting up and walking away and saying “we aren’t going to play with you if you are going to be mean/yell at us.” This goes on ALL day. He has always gone down for naps and bed time without any issues. Yesterday I put him down for nap and as soon as I left he started yelling “mummy, get back here!” He kept doing it over and over while screaming and crying.

    My husband and I NEVER raise our voices so we can’t figure out where it is coming from. We can’t tell if it’s because we catered to him when he was sick and he now expects it or if it’s just his age and him testing us. Any advise you could give would be greatly appreciated! Even other family members have asked what is going on because he seems like a different child. He will seem like his old self and then just turn on a dime.


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