Katie Brantley has a problem, and she’s not afraid to admit it.
“My kids back talk, big time,” says the 34-year-old mother of two girls, ages 12 and 8.
“It usually starts at breakfast, and then continues after school. It’s gotten to the point where we all get so frustrated at the end of the day, we go to bed not wanting to speak to each other.”
Katie is not alone, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Perfect Parenting: The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips (Contemporary Books.) A mother of four, Pantley says “back talk” is a very serious offense and one every parent should nip in the bud immediately. Methods on dealing with back talk is one of the topics covered in her book.
“All kids try back talking now and then,” says Pantley. “It’s how a parent responds to it that will determine whether it continues.”
Pantley says back talk is a sign that there might be something wrong in the parent-child relationship. It’s a sign of disrespect on the child’s part, or a sign that the child has trouble communicating with the mother, father or both.
Either way, in order to turn the back talk around, it must be dealt with in a consistent and expedient manner.
Try Not to Overreact
While many experts suggest responding to back talk with negative reinforcements, others recommend other ways of countering back talk. In the new book The Parent’s Problem Solver (Three Rivers Press), author Cathryn Tobin M.D. suggests directness and honesty. These are some of her strategies:
Connect versus reject: Respond to back talk by asking a question, for instance, “How do you think I feel when you call me mean?” Tobin says this teaches your children to think before they speak.
Teach, don’t preach: Show kids how to build constructive communication. Model for your child the way you want them to be assertive without being argumentative and aggressive.
Be objective, not subjective: Don’t take back talk personally. It is a normal developmental blip where the child is struggling with autonomy versus dependence issues.
Respond, don’t react: Deal with back talk in a way that will diminish it. Respond to your child instead of reacting to her.
React, don’t overreact: The bigger your reaction, the greater the appeal. Back talk is designed to irritate you. The best way to respond to it is calmly.
“If a child talks back and gets away with it,” warns Pantley, “a parent sends the message that ‘it’s OK to be disrespectful. It’s a parent’s job to mold a child to have respect for others.”
So how should a parent handle back talk?
“Immediately,” advises Pantley. “There are methods for handling the first-time offenders as well as those chronic back-talking children.”
For instance, Pantley suggests that if your child talks back for the first time, what you should do is look the child squarely in the eye and in a calm voice say, “That’s back talk and it’s not allowed.” Then continue your conversation as if the back talk did not occur, expecting your child to comply with your request. It’s important that parents not empower the back talk by arguing about the issue that triggered it.
For chronic back talkers, such as in Katie’s family, Pantley says it will take firm action to stop the behavior which may have been reinforced in the past.
Pantley suggests the Brantleys sit down with their children and announce that “from this moment on, back talking will not be tolerated.” The parents should then discuss with the children a series of consequences if the back talk continues, such as reduced TV or telephone privileges, an additional chore or perhaps an early bedtime. Above all, what is needed, is for the parents to follow through with the consequences if the back talk continues.
“For a chronic backtalker, it will take time,” says Pantley, “but with a consistent and loving effort, the back talk should cease and a more respectful parent-child relationship should develop.
“Parents need to know that they are doing their child a huge favor when they control back talk. Back talk isn’t going to work with a teacher, a boss or a police officer, later in life.”
Here are key points to keep in mind in your efforts to end back talk:
If a child has developed a habit of back talk, it will take firm action to stop the behavior. Have a meeting with your child to announce that back talk will no longer be tolerated. Decide on a series of consequences that will be enforced each time the back talk occurs. Consequences may involve losing a privilege, such as telephone use, television viewing or visits with friends.
There may be an additional chore or an earlier bedtime. Then announce the sequence in which the consequences will occur. “When you talk back in a disrespectful way, you will lose your telephone privileges for the day. The second offense will cause you to lose your TV show for the night. Each day will start with a clean slate.” After the meeting, calmly and firmly follow through.
Whenever a child talks back, immediately stop the conversation and walk out of the room or walk away from the child. If the child follows you, calmly and firmly announce that you will not tolerate disrespect; then pointedly ignore the child. Later, when you have calmed down, decide on an appropriate consequence for the back talk.
Tape your child’s allowance in quarters, to a piece of cardboard. Tell your child each time he talks back to you, he will lose a quarter from his allowance as a “fine.” He’ll get what’s left at the end of the week. If your child uses up all the quarters, add a chore or eliminate a privilege for each offense.
Start fresh with each new week. This series of events is meant to be a temporary training situation. When the problem seems under control, let your child know that you appreciate his efforts to control the back talk and that you will no longer be charging the fine. However, make it clear that if the behavior ever becomes a problem again, you’d be happy to head to the bank for a roll of quarters.
If a normally, respectful child makes a disrespectful comment, remember, look him in the eye and seriously say, “That is back talk and is not allowed.” Continue the conversation as if the back talk did not occur, expecting the child to comply with your request. Do not empower the back talk by arguing the issue that triggered it.
Do’s and Don’ts
- DO teach your child how to respond politely.
- DO control yourself. Instead of exploding, say things like, “It’s hard when you don’t get what you want, isn’t it?”
- DO let your child know how it feels to be on the receiving end of hurtful comments.
- Don’t lecture about rudeness by saying things like, “When I was your age …”
- Don’t always have to have the last word.
Greg Stiles is a freelance writer.