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What to Do When Kids Talk Back

By Jessica Kilpatrick, MA, LPC- S
Read Time: 8 Minutes

Every parent feels excitement when their child learns to speak and express herself (or himself). But that excitement can quickly turn to alarm when a child uses her words to be rude or disrespectful.

A common scenario: You tell your three-year-old it's time to put away her toys. "No," she yells. "I don't want to! You can't make me!" Just for a moment, you long for the days before she learned to talk and wonder whether you're in for years of sassy behavior.

Back talking is a normal part of child development that can happen at any age, starting as early as when a toddler masters the word "No!" A child who talks back may be tired, cranky, testing her boundaries, or trying to get more control over her life. Regardless of what causes the back talking, there are ways you can respond that will help teach your child to express herself in a positive manner. Back talking toddler can push a parent’s buttons.

What to do when a child talks back

It can be tempting to respond to a child's back talk by talking back yourself. For example, when a sassy three-year-old yells, "You can't make me!" instead of following your direction to put away her toys, it's tempting to say, "Oh yes I can!" Even though it may feel satisfying in the moment, that teaches your child that it's okay to speak rudely when you're upset. Here are some suggestions for better ways to handle back talking.

Stay calm.

When kids talk back, they are usually upset about something. Hearing them speak rudely probably makes you feel irritated in return. As hard as it may be, try to remain calm and speak in a normal, steady voice. If you feel too frustrated to speak right away, count to 10, take a few deep breaths, or turn away for a moment to collect yourself. It's better to take some time to calm yourself down than to increase the conflict, and it's a clear sign to your child that she has crossed the line. Try to speak calmly and respectfully in the face of back talk: "I know you can find a better way to say that" or "That's not how we speak to one another. Can you try again?"

Be clear.

Give your child simple and specific instructions about what you expect and what you won't tolerate. For example, a back talking three-year-old may not understand a general instruction like, "Don't be rude." Instead, tell her, "When I tell you to pick up your toys, you need to do it. You need to listen when I ask you to do something."

Similarly, if there's a specific word or behavior you want to stop, name it and tell her what you want her to do instead. "I do not like it when you throw your pajamas on the floor. I asked you to put on your pajamas. Since you won't pick a pair, I will pick them and help you put them on." Be patient with your little one and keep reminding her what is and is not acceptable in your house.

Offer choices.

When a child back talks, it's okay to offer her a choice rather than engaging in a power struggle. That three-year-old who refuses to put up her toys may be in the middle of looking at her favorite book. Instead of focusing on getting her to put away all the toys, consider giving her a choice. "It's almost time for bed but I can tell you're not finished with your book. "Would you rather finish it now and then put your toys away or put them away now and read at bedtime?"

By the same token, a broccoli-hating preschooler can be allowed to choose another vegetable if one is available, or eat more of other foods on her plate, rather than getting into a struggle about how much broccoli she eats. Focus your energy on the goal of teaching children to handle situations in a positive manner. As long as a child asks for another choice respectfully, we can usually find a way to meet those requests.

Establish boundaries.

It is perfectly acceptable for you to have things that are non-negotiable, such as using swear words, insults, or threats. A back talking child may use words she's heard on TV or in public without knowing what they mean. Try not to be alarmed if your child uses inappropriate language, instead handle the situation calmly and give her clear direction. “That's not a word we use. It's not a nice word, and I don't want to hear you use it again. Let's find another word use can use to say how you feel.”

If she uses the word again to get your attention, try a different approach. Ignore her and go on with what you are doing. Try telling her: "I will not listen when you talk like that. I'll listen when you speak with respectful words."

If she continues to use the forbidden word, consider giving her an immediate timeout. Place her in a safe spot where you can see her. Leave her there for one minute per year of age. For a three-year-old, a three-minute timeout is an eternity. A timeout should always end with a short conversation about why there was a timeout, giving them a chance to try again, and letting them know you love them. You may also consider trying a time-in which has the child take a break and think it over while the adult stays close to them.

Enforce consequences.

In most situations, ignoring back talk can encourage more of the same. Give children clear, age-appropriate consequences and stick to them. When we pretend it didn't happen, we are allowing children to feel that the behavior is okay. Being consistent sends a clear message that you need to see your child learning and growing. When your child is tired, hungry, or being asked to do a difficult task like staying still or quiet for long periods of time, then see how you can meet her needs, rather than immediately giving consequences. She might need a snack, a nap, or an activity to be able to make better choices.

Good to Know

Little ears are always listening.

One of your most effective tools is to model good behavior by being careful about the words you use and the tone of your voice. Do your best to be respectful when talking to your spouse, friends, family, colleagues, and strangers. Some parents will eliminate "adult words" from their vocabulary so they are less likely to slip up in front of the kids. Being more aware of what you say and how you say it will create good habits that rub off on your children.

Why does my child talk back?

A child may talk back for many reasons. Sometimes a child who talks back is tired, hungry, or simply having a bad day. Back talking may also be her way of testing her boundaries. She may have heard older kids use phrases like "you're not my boss" or "no way" and decide to give them a try.

A common reason a child may talk back is she doesn't know how to handle her feelings and emotions. She may be feeling angry, worried, sad, fearful, or frustrated. A toddler who talks back when told to do something may feel her whole day consists of being told what to do and when to do it. She may feel she has no control over her time or activities, but she doesn't have the skills to understand or express her feelings. Back talk can serve as a release valve to vent her emotions. One of the best ways to direct her feelings is to name it, such as “you are angry” or “you are feeling frustrated.” These words are acceptable and allow your child to express her feelings appropriately.

Back talk tends to be more common when a child's routine or the whole family's routine changes. Maybe there's a new baby in the house or your child started a new class at day care. Children who are sensitive to change may need extra help adjusting to a new routine.

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Frustration and sadness can cause a child to backtalk.

Back talking may be a plea for attention.

If none of these reasons seems to apply, consider that she may simply want your attention. Talking back guarantees you'll pay attention, and negative attention is better than no attention. Try to set aside a specific amount of time each day to give your child your full attention. It could be 10 minutes or it could be more - whatever is feasible for you. Just be consistent. By giving your child attention up front, you should notice less back talking over time.

Use these positive parenting tips to get the most from your time together:

  1. Let the child lead. Let your child decide what to do and then join in. You may read a book, toss a ball, play with blocks, make goofy faces, or do whatever she wants. The key is for her to lead and you to enthusiastically follow.
  2. Get rid of interruptions. Put away your mobile phone and other distractions. Setting aside this time shows that she's important to you. If you have more than one child, spend time with each one individually and make sure the others are safely occupied.
  3. Give it a name. Your special time deserves a special name, such as "Mommy and Hannah" time. Giving it a name makes it real and important to you both. When the time is up, give her a hug and say, "I really enjoyed Mommy and Hannah time. I can't wait to do it again tomorrow."

How to Stop Back Talk Before It Starts

Here are some more tips to help stop back talk.

Look for patterns.

Pay attention to situations when your child talks back. Does it tend to be at a certain time of day or around certain friends? Does it happen when she's tired or hungry? Is she more likely to back talk when other people are around? Try to remove triggers that may lead to back talking. For example, if you notice she's more likely to talk back when she's hungry or tired, try to stick to regular meal and naptimes, and keep a snack handy when you are not at home. Of course, your child needs to learn that back talk is not okay no matter how she feels, but it will be less frustrating for both of you if you are dealing with fewer instances of back talking.

Reduce negative influences.

Many TV shows and movies feature sassy and disrespectful children who get big laughs. But what's funny onscreen is not always acceptable in real life. Young children should have minimal screen time and be monitored. When you view videos together, talk about what you see and tell your child that imitating bad behavior is not funny or acceptable.

Praise good behavior.

Children love to know when they do something right. Reward them with a hug, thank you, or compliment as often as you can to reinforce their good behavior. When your three-year-old puts away her toys without back talk, tell her you appreciate her help. You can also teach that using words the right way doesn't always mean she gets what she wants. "I appreciate that you asked nicely if you can leave the toys out, but it's time for bed, so you need to put them up now. Thank you for asking so nicely. I appreciate you using your words."

Don't take it personally.

Talking back is normal as a child becomes more independent and assertive. It's not a sign you have done something wrong as a parent or that your child doesn't respect you. Try to focus on positive lessons about respectful communication and give yourself a break if the lessons don't sink in right away. Remember, you're both doing your best!

Dealing with back talk is challenging for all parents. Despite everything you do, your child is likely to say rude and disrespectful things at times. The single most important skill to practice is to remain calm and respectful, no matter how frustrated or upset you are. Your child will learn more from how you respond than what you say. The less you react to back talk, and instead consistently respond with a redirection, the more motivated she will be to speak respectfully.

Don’t let rude behavior get you down.

When to get help

Most young children will back talk. With patience, you can teach your child about acceptable ways to speak and her behavior should improve. If back talking continues to be an issue, talk to your child's pediatrician or a FAYS provider in your area.

Have a question about backtalking?

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Jessica Kilpatrick

Jessica Kilpatrick, MA, LPC-S

Jessica Kilpatrick is a licensed professional counselor with 20 years of experience in working with children in foster home, school, community center, and counseling settings.

Learn more about the author.

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