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Kids Talking Back – Why & How To Stop It

Megan Osterman

Oct 6, 2022

As parents, you’ve all had it happen. The day is going smoothly, then all of a sudden you ask your child to get ready for bed. And out of nowhere comes the “NO, I don’t want to!” and you’re faced with a war on power that you weren’t expecting to have. Back talk can leave you feeling disrespected and quickly be the one thing that sends you over the edge. Well let me assure you that you are not alone. From toddlers to teenagers, back talk is a complaint I’ve heard from just about every parent who’s walked through my doors.

What is talking back (back chatting)?

Back talk is when a child responds in a rude way that typically challenges authority. This can include rude gestures as well as verbal “sass” so to say. Kids are testing the limits of what they can get away with. No one wants feel disrespected, especially by someone you work so hard to raise. So as the parent, you might be quick to anger with thoughts of “I’m your parent, you have to listen to me.” And it is frustrating, but your child is trying to tell you something. Kids often talk back because they aren’t feeling heard, they’re tired/hungry, they’re trying to exert more control over their life, or have something else they’re having difficulties with in life, like stress or bullies.

5 situations when your child talks back and the meaning behind their words

There could be a number of reasons why your child is talking back. Understanding the meaning behind those reasons will help give you a better understanding of where they are coming from and how to better respond.

Lack of rules

Ask yourself if there are a lack of rules in the house or if they aren’t being enforced enough. Are the rules consistent across both parents and/or other family members? Do you let the back talk slide half the time, then scold some of the time? Maybe your child is confused on what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Meaning:

Kids need structure and a clear set of rules. Even the youngest of kids are quick to notice when things are “unfair” or “unjust.” If they are noticing that they’re getting yelled at or scolded for something they didn’t know was wrong, or something they only get in trouble for half of the time, they’re going to speak up about it. Just think, if your boss was being inconsistent with you and you didn’t know what the specific rules were, you would snap at some point too. So in a way, it’s good that they challenge authority to some degree. So make sure you’re setting them up for success and you’ll receive more respect in return.

They need some attention

A parent’s work schedule can be hectic, with balancing a job or even the amount of work it takes to be a stay-at-home parent. It can be easy to forget that your children need your one-on-one attention. And sometimes they need more attention than other times, and back talking can be a clear sign that your child is in need of some extra attention.

Meaning:

Children are pretty smart, and they know that if they can’t get your attention in a positive way, they will search for it in more negative way like talking back. You don’t mean it intentionally, but they probably feel hurt that you aren’t noticing them. Take the time to spend 10 minutes every now and then to play with them or do something they want to do.

They need more control

Hear me out, I’m not suggesting you let your children run the house, but giving them more sense of control in their life can help you avoid some pushback. We all need to have some control over our lives, and it can feel stressful or we might lash out when we don’t have any.

Meaning:

Children especially don’t have much control on the day to day, they’re always being told what to do, what to eat, and how to behave. Letting them choose their outfit or snack for the day, or what game you play with them can help ease their mood and respect the times when you are in charge. If they constantly feel like they never have any power, they will find ways to get some of it.

Poorly modeled behavior

Kids are like sponges; they constantly absorb and repeat things that they observe. Is there someone in the family that your child might be learning this behavior from? Someone at school? Young kids especially look up to their parents or older siblings and want to be just like them, so you have to be careful about what you are passing onto them.

Meaning:

As I said before, kids are always aware of when things are not fair. So if you are constantly talking back to your partner or other people but telling your children that they can’t talk the same way, they are likely to not understand why. It’s only fair if you do it that they can do it too, right? Of course that’s not correct, but in their mind it is. Lead by example and they are bound to follow in your footsteps.

Unspoken problems

Maybe your kid has something going on at school, with friends, or in their personal life. And maybe they don’t know how to tell you or express their feelings. Now you’ve just told them what to do and they’re at their limits, taking it all out on you. You feel hurt, they feel misunderstood, it’s a lose-lose.

Meaning:

Under this circumstance, it’s probably nothing personal when they talk back, they’re just having a bad day. We all lash out at times when we don’t mean to. Ask your kiddo what’s going on and give them time to talk to you about it.

How to handle this “negative” behavior and avoid the power struggle

Parenting is hard enough without your child challenging you and your authority. These tips can help you avoid the conflict and teach your child better behaviors.

Have a clear set of rules

Make sure that you create rules that your child knows about and and understand. If you are making a new rule, let your child know of the rule and tell them if they break the rule again they will get in trouble the next time. This can make it feel more fair to your child and they are more likely to listen.

Putting it into action

This is the important part. Once you have a set of structured rules, you have to stick to those rules. Making sure that other parental figures or teachers are on board with the same rules can also help decrease the behavior issues you might be seeing from your kid. Let them know what they can and cannot say. Giving consequences like timeout can also be useful if they refuse to follow the rules you’ve created. And don’t forget to reward or give praise when your child does good behavior, this will help reinforce the behaviors you want to keep seeing from them.

Listen to them

Many kids do back talking because they don’t feel heard. They are usually talking back because they are trying to relay some message to you and they feel like you aren’t listening. Think about how you feel when your partner or someone else isn’t truly listening to you. We all just want to be heard and understood, your child just doesn’t know the best way to communicate this message when they’re flooded with emotions.

Putting it into action

Focus on what they are saying, even if you don’t agree with how they said it. Validate their feelings in ways like “I know you’re having so much fun playing your video game, but it’s time to go to bed.” This way, they feel heard and you are still enforcing the rules.

Model how to respectfully disagree

Kids don’t always know how to put their emotions into words, especially in a respectful manner. They do know that rude behaviors are likely to get your attention, and negative attention is still attention in their eyes. You can teach them that it’s okay to disagree with you, but there are nicer ways to communicate their opinion. In the future, if their boss or a classmate is treating them unfairly, you want your child to be able to challenge authority and assert themselves.

Putting it into action

When your child talks back, it can actually be a moment to teach them to speak respectfully. Many parents are quick to get angry when their kids talk back — and why wouldn’t you, it’s rude and not what you expect from them. But if you can, take a deep breath and use this as an opportunity to respond in a constructive manner. “I understand you’re upset, but that’s not how we talk to people.” or “Can you use a more respectful tone with me?” This shows that maybe it’s not what they said, but how they went about saying it that’s the problem.

Foster open communication

Dig deeper. Spend some quality time with your kiddo to see if there’s something going on that would make them frustrated or in a bad mood. Something might have happened at school or with their friends that is making them upset. When you take the time to listen to them, it shows them that you care and respect them and want to know the real reason behind the talking back. This can help calm them down, of soften them, so they will most likely drop the attitude.

Putting it into action

If you create an environment where they feel like they can talk to you, it could make a huge difference in understanding where the disrespectful behavior is coming from. Make time every day to ask about their day, have dinner together without the tv on, go out and do an activity together. This will help create opportunities for your child to tell you what’s going on in their life. Once you have a better understanding, then you can respond to them with the real life wisdom, love, and advice that you have for them.

Work on their emotion regulation

If your child snaps at you, it could be because they’re really angry. Some children have a harder time dealing with their emotions, so it could be beneficial to show them ways to calm down or better manage their emotions. The last thing you want is a shouting match between the two of you because you’re both flooded with anger.

Putting it into action

Having conversations about emotions and appropriate ways to express those emotions would be a great first step. If your child has a hard time verbalizing their feelings, you could print out the emotion wheel and have them point to how they are feeling. There are also many mindfulness breathing exercises you could teach them that are kid-friendly.

How parents unknowingly contribute to power struggles

As their parent, it’s important to look at how you’ve been parenting and determine if changes need to be made on your end. If you’re always responding back to your kids back talk with “don’t be a brat!” or “because I said so,” it’s only going to result in more of a power struggle. Are you being consistent with the rules you set? Or spending enough time quality with your kids? Are you giving them some power over certain aspects of their life? Of course, your child plays a huge part in their behavior, but it’s important to take some responsibility for how your parenting may be unintentionally contributing to the problem. Try out some of these new techniques, and try to remember that behavior changes take time. I know that sometimes parenting can be discouraging, but stay strong and stick with it!

Your child has a fundamental need to feel seen and heard

“While parents are the primary “fulfillers” of this need, therapy can serve as a secondary outlet”

It’s extremely important for development that your child is being seen and heard. If you feel like you’ve tried everything with them, don’t worry. Child therapy might be a good option. A child or teen therapist can serve as a good secondary person who can attend to your child in the ways that they need. Sometimes, for whatever reason, some kids don’t want to talk to their parents about certain things. Therapy can provide an unbiased space where they can have more control and one-on-one attention. Helping them with this will in turn help you in the long run! If you’re considering this, read our guide on what to expect in your first session.

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