Teenagers Talking Back: How to Manage This Annoying Behavior

Dr. Purushothaman
September 5, 2013

"If your child is talking back all the time and you’re not setting firm limits around it, make no mistake, you are training him to do it more often."
When your kids start to talk back, you might as well welcome them to adolescence. Back talk, however disrespectful and obnoxious it is in the moment, is your child’s way of learning how to assert herself. As every parent of a teen knows, adolescents often aren’t thinking things through; they’re just beginning to learn how to stand up for themselves, and most of the time they’re not going to do it very well. Your job is to help your child change rude behavior by teaching her how to state her viewpoint in a more respectful and appropriate way. This doesn’t mean she’ll always get her way—but she’ll eventually learn to voice her opinions without being disrespectful.

Related: How to stop back talk and become a more effective parent.

Understandably, most of us become reactionary to back talk. It’s annoying, it challenges our authority, and it pushes all our buttons. When this happens, the back talk and our reaction to it can take on a life of their own. Suddenly, you’re stuck in a full-blown power struggle with your teen. You’re angry and frustrated, and your child is fueling that fire by continuing to talk back until the argument escalates into a screaming match.

If it becomes a habit and your child is talking back regularly, it’s not healthy and you really need to start dealing with it. Sometimes parents let it go because they’re overwhelmed—they’ve already got so much on their plates and it becomes just one more thing to worry about. Sometimes they’re reluctant to intervene because they think their child will just get angrier. But simply avoiding back talk doesn’t work, because then your child won’t learn how to express himself differently.

Choose Your Battles: I think it’s important to choose your battles. Let’s say your child is swearing at you and is also mumbling every time you give her a chore to do. You’re going to want to deal with both behaviors eventually, but the swearing is probably going to be more important to you than the mumbling. So start by setting limits and giving consequences for it, then move on to the next behavior you want to change. If you try to tackle everything at once, it becomes overwhelming and it’s easier for you to throw your hands up and give up.

You also may decide that mumbling is something you can put up with. My husband James always said that kids need an outlet for their anger just like we do. If they express their frustrations in a way that is fairly harmless—like mumbling or eye rolling—you might want to simply ignore it. The bottom line is that every family is different; you have to decide for yourself what you will and won’t put up with from your kids.

When my son was in high school, he wanted to go to a concert out of state. His plan was to sleep in the car overnight with his friends. When we said no, he got angry and mumbled under his breath and ran upstairs and slammed the door. Now that wasn’t acceptable behavior by any means, but he didn’t punch walls and he didn’t do anything harmful. We chose to set the limit around the concert and not his response to being told he couldn’t go. We chose to manage the situation this way because it was more important for us to deal with the concert and the safety issues around it than his reaction to us. When he calmed down we were able to talk about it.

Define what is—and isn’t—acceptable to you: If swearing or being rude is not acceptable, state that clearly to your child. Do this during a calm time. Let your child know exactly what he can and can’t do, and tell him what the consequences will be if he crosses the line. You might say, “If you swear at your sister, I’m taking your cell phone away for 3 hours. If during that time you swear again, that 3 hours will start over again.” That way, you’re helping your child work towards good behavior by earning his cell phone back.

Sometimes parents avoid dealing with back talk by not being clear about expectations and by tiptoeing around their kids. If your child is talking back all the time and you’re not setting firm limits around it, make no mistake, you are training him to do it more often.

Related: Is your child swearing and calling you or other family members foul names?

Overreacting to back talk: Most of us will lose our cool and overreact to back talk at one point or another. We’re overwhelmed, frustrated, and tired of our child’s attitude. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to have an extreme reaction to something that isn’t that important. If your child is behaving fairly well in other areas and is just starting to talk back to you, take it into context. You still want to set limits and be clear about what’s acceptable, but you don’t want to blow things out of proportion. By overreacting, you’re giving that back talk more power than it really should have—and you’re giving your child more power than he should have.

Don’t take it personally: If your pre-teen is screaming and yelling, “I hate you! You can’t make me do it,” it feels personal, but it really isn’t—it’s just angry talk. Try to think about a time when your child has been angry and said things he didn’t mean. Imagine that’s what your child is doing when he’s yelling at you. It’s important to remember that no matter how upset your child is, he still loves you and needs your approval. Whether he shows it or not, he cares about what you say.

So don’t take it personally. As soon as you get into an argument and engage with the back talk, it becomes your problem and deflects the responsibility from your child. At the same time, your maturity level sinks down to your child’s level and you become peers. It’s very likely that you’re going to overreact in this situation because you’re reacting to angry words instead of what’s behind those words.

Walk away from the fight: When tensions start to escalate and you feel yourself getting drawn in, it’s important to use the “acting stance.” Even if you don’t feel calm, try to act that way. Say, “I’m not going to talk with you right now. We’ll talk later when you’ve calmed down.” If your child continues to try to engage you, then you really need to step away from the situation. Leave the room, or go for a drive if your child is old enough to be left alone. It certainly helps your child to have no one to back talk to. She can back talk to the cupboard, but it’s not going to have much effect. If you’re not there, that target isn’t there for your child. It also allows you time to calm down.

How we present ourselves makes all the difference with kids. If we don’t get involved in the argument, then we don’t take it on as part of our own problem. If we do, you start diminishing your child’s responsibility.

Set the limits around back talk. Set limits around back talk in a firm yet gentle way. Say clearly, “I don’t accept you talking to me this way. This isn’t the way people talk to each other, and this isn’t the way we talk to each other in our family.” Or, “It’s hard to listen to you when you’re talking like this.”

Set clear, firm limits on what is allowed and not allowed. Be specific about what is respectful and disrespectful. Young teens especially really need to know that. They see things on TV that are pretty disrespectful but are made to look like they’re acceptable. Having that calm clarity and firmness about limits is really useful. Again, this is a test. You need to come through with clear rules about what kind of behavior you need to see. And keep reinforcing your rules as your child continues to test.

Giving consequences for backtalk: Whether or not you want to give consequences for back talk depends on the situation. Let’s say it’s the first time something disrespectful or rude ever flew out of your kid’s mouth. You’re probably going to set a limit and say, “This is not okay,” but might decide not to give a consequence because you’re going to expect him to learn from it. If this keeps happening and you have set those limits and been very clear about what’s allowed, then it makes more sense to look at consequences. You’ve done your part as a parent, you’ve set a verbal expectation but your child has chosen to break that rule.

Related: How to give consequences that really work.

Know your own triggers: It’s important for you to know your own reactions, or the “triggers,” that push your buttons. There are probably things your child could say that aren’t going to affect you at all, but then there are other things that really upset you. In order to change your response to your child, you need to know yourself. For example, in the heat of the moment, your child might say something like, “You’re the worst mom in the world. I hate you!” Instead of overreacting by screaming or getting upset, take a deep breath and try responding in a different way. Stay calm, state that you will talk later, and walk away.

If you’re in the pattern of getting into arguments or reacting in a charged way to back talk, and all of a sudden you do something different, it shows your child that behavior can change. It can be very surprising to kids when you respond differently. Sometimes your child might try to push you further, but when they realize they’re not going to get a reaction out of you, they will let go. This effectively takes away the power of back talk.

As James said, “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” Take time away for yourself, giving your child clear directions that you’re going to come back and talk about this situation when you’re both calm. You could recommend to your child that while you’re taking time out, he could think about what he was trying to say in a respectful way.

Take a time out: Does back talk and fighting tend to happen around the same time? If you find that’s the case, ask yourself a few questions. Do fights always seem to happen around homework or chores? Or do they occur when you’ve just come home from work, feeling stressed and overwhelmed? I always made sure to have some break time between getting home and dealing with my son. I would either take a minute to decompress and change clothes after work before sitting down and talking again. Again, look at your own self in these situations and see what you might do differently.

Remember, for your child the lesson around back talk is how to resolve conflicts, how to express anger and how to problem solve—in short, how to have a discussion about things, even when you’re angry or frustrated. And a discussion is when two people are listening to each other; they’re expressing themselves and coming to some shared closure, even if they don’t agree 100 percent with each other. Back talk is not healthy. It’s generally talking at someone; it’s very one-sided and usually disrespectful. This is why you’re teaching your child not to do it—and why you’re setting limits around it. You want to handle this as objectively as possible, and view your role as that of a teacher and coach. As parents, we teach our kids to do so many things in so many different ways to prepare them to be healthy, respectful and responsible people. The lessons that you have to teach around back talk often have a lot of feelings connected to them. But if you can teach your child healthier ways to express anger and show him how to problem solve, it diminishes the power that anger and back talk have.

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