What To Do When Your Child "Talks Back"


when kids and rebellious teenagers talk backBath time was never a happy experience for six-year-old Alex. His mother would patiently persist in explaining to him that he had to be clean to be healthy, and that there would be bubbles, toys, and Winnie-the-Pooh shampoo in the bath. That worked for awhile. But Alex didn't grow out of hating baths. He just grew. And his mother could no longer capture her little boy and wrestle him into the tub. She instead heard, "NO! Don't do this! I don't want a bath! You can't make me." And even, "I hate you!" One evening, as she was filling the tub with the perfect temperature of water and the ideal amount of bubbles, Alex stopped at the bathroom door carrying a sign on which he had carefully printed, "NO!" in black and red crayon.

Fourteen-year-old Clarice was asked to Homecoming at the high school by a boy who was also a freshman. She knew the family rule of no dating before the age of sixteen. However, she optimistically assumed that an exception would be made for Homecoming. She said yes to the boy, and then told her mother that she was going to the dance. When her mother (who was recently divorced) reminded her of the rule, asserting that the rule did apply to school dances, Clarice was furious. "Well, I already said yes, so I'm going. I don't care what you say. Dad's not here anymore, so you can't tell me what to do."

It is a difficult thing to keep your temper under control when your child displays such willful behavior. It's hard not to yell the familiar phrase, "Don't you dare take that tone of voice with me!" Parents tend to be uncomfortable with this kind of challenge to their authority. It is usually the way the child speaks to you that is more offensive than the words he uses. Most parents would define "talking back" as speaking in an aggressive, rude, or hurtful way.

In most cases, scolding and threatening will not improve this type of behavior. It is more useful to figure out why your child is talking back. You can then handle the real problem, instead of just reacting in anger.

What Is Your Child Really Saying?
There is usually an explanation for talking back. It might just be a part of your child's general "high spirits." A certain degree of talking back could be considered healthy, as it shows that a child feels confident enough to stand up for himself. Your child may be making an attempt to express views that differ from yours. Try to distinguish between reasonable disagreement and disrespectful attitudes. Children need to learn skills associated with negotiation, convincing others of their opinions, and standing up for themselves. Talking back is one way they learn how to communicate in these valuable ways.

However, sometimes the talking back is obviously disrespectful, signaling a more serious problem, such as in the situation above with Clarice. Your child may be acting hostile and defiant to mask some other problem he is having. Children under the age of five often have trouble finding the words to explain what is upsetting them. Kids also have a tendency to blurt out whatever they are thinking, before realizing it is not appropriate.

Your child may not have a clear understanding of exactly what is acceptable behavior. He may not have learned to think about not crossing a certain line. Children, like adults, "snap" at others when they are angry, in a hurry, feeling defensive, or are trying to assert themselves.


Cutting Back on Back Talk

You might consider the following suggestions of how to react to your child's challenging behavior, and how to reduce or prevent it.

1. Take time to listen for signs of anger and hurt feelings.
When kids talk back they are communicating emotions. Try to get them to talk about what's really bothering them.

2. Acknowledge your child's feelings.
Say, "You sound really mad about something." This will allow him an opportunity to express himself.

3. Explain the emotional impact of hurtful words.
Tell him how it feels when someone says, "I hate you," or "You're stupid." Describe the way you feel when he says it to you.

4. Avoid losing your temper.
Try counting to ten, or taking several deep breaths before you say anything.

5. Make a family rule about respect.
For example, let everyone know there is a clear line drawn prohibiting name-calling and yelling. If your child breaks the rule, remind him of it, and say, "Now, tell me what you want to say in another way." If this is ineffective, send him to his room for a brief "time-out." Explain that it is the rule to speak kindly.

6. Continue to show love and affection.
This is a preventive measure. Distract your child with one-on-one time. Do something with him that he enjoys doing and express your love clearly.

7. Give decision-making opportunities.
If you think your child may be talking back because he is trying to assert himself, help him feel more powerful. Let him make more decisions about what to wear, what to have for a snack, what to play, etc. Let him contribute to family decisions.

8. Listen to your child's views.
When your child disagrees with you, let him have a chance to explain his opinion. He may have a good argument, and even if he doesn't, let him know you respect his views.

Alex's mother had done all she could to explain why it is important to be clean, and to make his bath time as pleasant as possible. Finally, she said, "Alex, I can tell you're angry. But you know you need a bath. Please tell me what is wrong." Alex, who was defiantly braced against the wall repeatedly shouting, "No," suddenly said, "Because I'm not a baby anymore. Only babies take baths. I want to go in the shower."

Clarice's mother, although hurt by the disrespectful challenge to her authority, took the opportunity to listen to Clarice's feelings about the divorce. She reminded her daughter that even as a single parent, she still would be making the rules in the home, and that compliance was expected. She empathized with Clarice about the embarrassment of having to call the boy back and say she couldn't go, but reminded her that she should have asked for permission before agreeing to go to the dance with him. She did make a compromise with Clarice, however. She suggested that she could have a small, supervised party at the house, the day after the dance. Clarice could invite girls and boys--including the boy who invited her to the dance.

When parents react calmly and lovingly to their children's unkind words, they teach them to have empathy for others. Once parents recognize the reasons why children talk back, they can develop an understanding of what is really being said. Your child could be letting out his anger and frustration over a totally unrelated issue, or struggling to express an opinion. Properly dealing with the problem of back talk will help develop consideration for the feelings of others within your family.

 

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