How to Handle a Child Who Is Talking Back

Bad boy in supermarket
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One of the biggest child discipline issues parents have to handle is how to deal with a child who is talking back to them. Back talk can happen at almost any age, starting as almost as early as when kids first begin to master their first "No!" It’s a normal part of child development.

Talking back can also be triggered by a variety of causes. It can stem from a child trying to exert control over his own life such as what he wears, eats, or does. It could be a child’s way of testing his boundaries. Or it could simply be grouchiness from being hungry or tired.

That said, back talk is something parents should take measures to address effectively and immediately. As parents, it is our job to teach our kids how to express their wishes and opinions in a respectful and constructive manner.

Get Calm, Stay Calm

How you respond to your child’s retorts can set the tone for your interactions. Kids can be extremely skilled at pushing their parents’ buttons. It can be extremely tempting to respond to a 5-year-old who declares, "You are not the boss of me!" with a quick, "Actually, I am!" But when you show that you are calm and in control, that sets an example for your child and shows him how he should behave.

Don't Get Into a War of Words

When parents respond to kids’ back talk with retorts of their own, they are inadvertently saying that this is an acceptable way to handle conflict. If you don’t want your child to learn that trading barbs is a good way to discuss problems, then do not respond until you can speak in a calm and controlled manner. In short, if you want to curb talking back in your child, do not feed the back talk beast.

Remind Yourself This Is a Natural Part of Development

Talking back is something all kids naturally do as they grow more independent and assertive. As frustrating as this behavior may be, remind yourself that your child is not talking back because you did something wrong or because they do not respect you.

Look for Patterns

Keep track of when back talk happens. Is your child irritable after school or after extracurricular activities? Does she tend to exhibit negative behavior such as talking back when she hasn’t had enough sleep? Try to keep tabs on when your child talks back so that you can take steps to change or eliminate those triggers.

Give and Ask for Respect

When your child expresses his opinion about something, it’s actually a good thing. (In fact, research shows that kids who have their own thoughts and opinions and are not afraid to express them are less at risk for going along with peers who may experiment with drugs and alcohol.) That said, it’s important for parents to balance understanding with a requirement for respect. While children should know that they are safe to express their opinions and that mom and dad are listening to what they think and feel, they must also know that speaking to you respectfully and calmly is not negotiable. Be sure to emphasize the message that you will not listen to what they have to say until they are able to speak to you in a calm and respectful manner.​

Show Your Child You're Listening

Once both you and your child have calmed down, give your child your full attention. Show your child that when he holds up her end of the bargain—speaking to you in a respectful and calm manner to express what she wants or thinks—she earns and gets your attention. This doesn’t mean that you should always agree, but it will teach your child that you respect her opinion.

Look at What Your Child Sees

What TV shows is he watching? Many shows today depict children talking back to adults and often displaying sarcasm and a sassy attitude. While that may be good for comedy, it’s definitely not the kind of example you want your child to be exposed to.

Seek Help

If your child is engaging in back talk constantly, your efforts to curb this behavior are not having any effect, and you see other behaviors such as being angry, throwing tantrums, and constantly refusing to listen or follow directions, speak to your child's pediatrician. Your child may have ​oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD, which can be managed and treated with proper help.

As frustrating and upsetting as back talk may be, keep in mind that your positive response will keep this behavior in check. Know, too, that countless other parents like you are going through the same thing. Most importantly, remind yourself that the calmer you are and the less you let yourself be affected by sassy back talk, the more your child will learn to use positive ways to express his opinions.

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