“I hate you!”
“You’re the worst mother in the world!”
“You are so mean!”

No parent likes to be on the receiving end of these accusations and insults. However, it does happen to the best of us. How can we stop back talk in its tracks?

1. Understand Underlying Message:

When my children talk back to me, my gut reaction is to respond in kind. It is hard to remember not to take it personally. It helps to remember that children really do speak another language because they don’t have the verbal acuity to express their fears or their feelings.

When children say: “I hate you!” they really mean: “I am so angry!”

When children say: “Why do I have to do everything around here?” they might really mean: “I am too tired to clean up right now.”

When children say: “You love Sara more than me!” they really mean: “I need some attention and reassurance that you love me too.”

Understanding the underlying messages behind a child’s back talk can go a long way in helping us defuse potential conflict, and help us keep calm in the face of disrespect.

2. Know Your Child’s Triggers:

The best way to get rid of “back talk” is to find ways to avoid it altogether. Once kids and parent get angry in can be hard to calm down. It is helpful to know what sets your child off in the first place.

Parents should try to avoid the following thing that could trigger your kids to resort to talking back to you:

  • make promises and then break them.
  • give kids a task that is too difficult or push too hard when they are having a bad day
  • pick at kids for little annoyances
  • ask kids what they want to do and then don't do it
  • take away their reward
  • accuse children of something they didn't do
  • respond in kind when they start an argument

3. Understand Their Personality:

The more we learn about a child’s temperament and personality, the easier it is for us to get along with our child. They will feel understood and will less likely resort to back talk.

For example, children who are slow to warm up to new situations, (the temperamental trait of adaptability) are not being bad because they do not want to kiss Aunt Martha, or because they refuse to get in the pool right away at their very expensive swim lessons. They really need time to get used to new people and new situations. They will use every method at their disposal to gain the very necessary time that they need. That includes talking back. They will refuse to comply until they are ready and feel comfortable. If we give them the time they need to adjust and acclimate we can avoid the power struggle and the back talk that ensues altogether.

4. Feelings First, Discipline Second:

When children talk back, it is often because they are angry and feel misunderstood (see #1 above). It is always best to validate their feelings before we discipline. This is a simple way to diffuse the tension.

Child: “You are so mean! You always make me clean my room! I hate you!”

This response creates more tension and encourages more back talk: “How dare you say they to me! You are so fresh!”

Instead neutralize the anger by reflecting their feelings: “You seem really angry and upset! Cleaning your room is the last thing you want to do!”

However, some parents feel that they can empathize with their child if they are scared, disappointed or hurt but have a tough time when their child is angry and talks back. They feel hurt and mad. Even if parents are able to remain calm, parents are still hesitant to use empathy because they feel they are letting their children off the hook. They would rather admonish their child and push them to be more compliant and respectful.

Parents can rest easy. When parents listen and empathize it does not mean that they are condoning negative behavior. They are not letting their kids get away with murder. Delivering empathy is the secret to stopping back talk and ultimately teaching children respectful behavior.

5. Now for the discipline:

Although we now understand that back talk is just a way that children express their negative feelings and emotions, we cannot allow them to talk to us in that way. We need to teach them better ways to manage their anger and frustration. We must not skip this step, however this step does not need to be done right away. We can wait a few hours or even until the next day when both you and your child are calm to have this conversation.

Parents want to keep this part positive and too the point, it is not necessary to lecture them about their bad behavior. It can sound like this:

  1. “I know you were angry before. Next time please say, ‘I am mad at you’, instead of ‘I hate you!’ It sounds more respectful.”

  2. “I understand that you were in a bad mood before. The next time that happens can you try saying, ‘Mom, I am in a bad mood. Can we talk later?’ That would be more respectful.”

Back talk is not pretty, but understanding what your child is really telling you, knowing what triggers your child’s anger, understanding your child’s temperament, validating their feelings and helping them express their anger in a more respectful way, can help.