Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

What to do when your kid talks back

"The art of mothering is to teach the art of living to children." --  Elaine Heffner

Should you strategically ignore mouthy behavior, from a toddler or a tween? I don't think so. When kids express irritability towards us -- often called "back talk" -- they're trying to tell us something, and if we don't listen, they just escalate.

But that doesn't mean you "crack down" with discipline, either, because that erodes your relationship with your child and makes disrespectful behavior even more likely in the future.

Your goal is to invite constructive communication while you calmly re-establish the standard for respect.  To do that, you need to keep the connection with the child warm, even while you point out their hurtful tone. Here's your three step strategy.

1. Monitor your own language and model respect and kindness as you interact with your child.  If you find yourself criticizing or yelling, bite your tongue. That models something you don't want to teach. If you need to set limits, wait until you can speak calmly and respectfully. 

2. Strengthen your relationship with your child by looking for every opportunity to positively connect.  Kids think twice about hurting the feelings of parents they feel connected to.  Be sure you spend at least 15 minutes alone with each child every day, giving them your focused, positive attention.

3. If your child speaks hurtfully to you, calmly confront the behavior and re-set a clear expectation for respectful behavior while staying connected to your child:  "Ouch! That tone of voice hurts. You must be upset to speak to me that way.  You know I don't speak to you in that tone.  You can tell me what you're upset about without attacking me. What's going on?"  

Or, if you know already, "I hear that you're very angry at me right now.  I hear how much you wish I would say yes to what you're wanting. Let's talk about this when we're both more calm."

Notice that we're teaching kids how to be in relationship with another person.  If we ignore their disrespect, we do them no favors.  If we react disrespectfully to their rudeness, we perpetuate the behavior. The secret?  They learn their behavior from us.

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