How to Handle Back Talk

by Ann Svensen

All parents have heard it — now here's some some advice on how to handle back talk.

Did that Come Out of My Child's Mouth?
Back talk: It stings, it shocks, it embarrasses, and it can turnyour home into a battleground. Jim Bozigar, head of community outreach atChildren's Hospital in Pittsburgh, runs a back-talk workshop for parents.He says that with a little understanding and self-restraint, parents canput a lid on talking back.

"The reasons for back talk are as varied as the personalities of thechildren who use it," says Bozigar. The child could be hungry, tired, or ina transitional period. But children who talk back usually do have one thingin common: They're trying to separate from their parents and exercisecontrol over their lives.

How should you handle these outbursts? Bozigar suggests parents do somebehavior tracking: "For three days, make notes about what your child says,what the situation was, and how you responded. See if you notice anypatterns. And keep in mind that when kids talk back, something else isgoing on underneath. The goal is to help them express it constructively."

Six rules for fighting fair
You won't ever be able to avoid disagreements with your kids, but you canlearn how to fight fair. Bozigar suggests that each family member adhere to the following rules:

  • Don't attack
  • Don't belittle
  • Don't condemn
  • Define what the problem is
  • Define how to rectify it
  • Figure out what can be done to prevent it in the future

Preschoolers
Common back talk: "No!" and "Why?"

How to respond: Model good behavior. Try saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if wedidn't have to do things we don't like to do?" Don't yell back and don'tbe sarcastic. Your response is going to determine what happens next.Parents will never be able to control their children. The only person youcan control is yourself. When you model control, you teach kids how tocontrol themselves.

School-Age Children
Common back talk: "You don't understand!" and "It's not fair!"

How to respond: Kids this age care more about what their peers think thanwhat you think. They'll try to dangle bait to get you going. Don't bite!You'll lose: School-age kids always need to have the last word. Instead,let the child own the problem and empathize with him. Try saying, "Youdon't think I know what's going on with you right now and that'sfrustrating, but you're being disrespectful. Please go to your room untilyou've calmed down and can talk rationally with me."

You'll have to be proactive to keep on top of the "It's not fairs." Limitshelp kids develop inner control. Set limits for when you thinkyour kids will be ready to cross the street safely, stay up later, go on adate, etc. Then try saying, "You know that in our house the rule is ______"

Preteens
Common back talk: "What's the big deal?"

How to respond: Instead of taking responsibility, this age group often putsparents on the defensive. Say your daughter borrowed a scarf that hadsentimental value and then lost it. You might blurt out, "How could you beso irresponsible!" Look out -- she'll most likely turn that response aroundon you: "Oh and you've never lost anything before? Excuse me for not beingperfect!" Instead of attacking, try talking in concrete terms: "You didthis, so I feel this." Use the restraint and respect you'd show a guest inyour home. The goal is for you to express your feelings in a way thatallows your child to take responsibility for them.

Teens
Common back talk: "Leave me alone!" and "It's all your fault!"

How to respond: Beware -- they may look like grown-ups, but teenagers arenot completely rational. They think differently than adults and children,and often feel they're invulnerable. Be concerned about their responses andlisten to them. Help them to see that you're on their side. If they saythey want to be left alone, back off but don't give up. Take a moresubtle approach. Write them a note without attacking or blaming, and saythat you'd like to hear back from them. Always keep the dialogue open. Trytalking in a lower voice. If you model screaming and shouting, that's whatyou'll get in return. And remember, you are always the authority in yourhouse; you can set limits. As parents, you cannot be friends with yourchildren, but you can still treat them in a friendly way.

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