How to respond to back talk from children (and why it’s a positive thing!)
Nothing triggers parents quite like back talk – that seemingly defiant, sassy, or disrespectful tone that children sometimes take when expressing their opinions. And at some point, almost all of the parents I see in my clinic ask me how to respond to back talk from their child.
They want to know how to they can stop it from happening. Parents will often say to me, “They need to know they can’t speak to people that way!”. And I agree, children do need to learn how to effectively and respectfully communicate with others. But parents are often surprised by my next suggestion.
Because rather than viewing backtalk as a negative behaviour that needs to be stamped out, I encourage parents to view back talk as an early attempt at self advocacy and a sign of their child’s developing communication skills. And I ask parents to try and embrace and welcome this form of communication from their children rather than immediately shutting it down.
Why? Because shutting your child down when they disagree with you will never teach them how to communicate effectively. Allowing children to express their opinions, to disagree with us, and to sometimes tell us no, is actually the only way to guide them towards respectful forms of self-expression. To learn effective communication skills, they need to practice them first. And what better place to practice than within the safety and security of their relationship with you?
Back talk from children is positive – yes really!
Backtalk is a window into your child’s growing autonomy and developing sense of self. As they become more aware of their preferences, opinions, and desires, they’re also learning how to assert themselves in the world. This newfound assertiveness often finds its way into their language, resulting in what many parents view as disrespectful backtalk.
But rather than shutting down this expression, I encourage you to consider backtalk as a bridge between your child’s thoughts and the outside world. Just as adults sometimes struggle to find the right words to express their feelings (and just a side note here – we rarely – if ever – refer to it as back talk when adults do it!) children too are navigating the complexities of emotions and language. Backtalk can be seen as an attempt to communicate thoughts and feelings, albeit with the limited communication tools children possess.
It’s important to understand that backtalk is not necessarily a sign of defiance or disrespect. It’s more about your child’s desire to express their feelings, opinions, and needs in a world that often feels overwhelming. By viewing backtalk from this perspective, you can approach the situation with empathy and curiosity. You can focus on the message your child is trying to convey, rather than their tone or choice of words.
How to respond to back talk from your child
When faced with backtalk, it’s important to shift your focus from the tone your child is using to the message they are trying to convey. Often, a child’s backtalk is a manifestation of frustration, disappointment, or a desire for more autonomy. By acknowledging and addressing these underlying emotions, you can help your child feel understood and supported. When they feel understood, they are able to learn, and that is what will ultimately lead to more respectful communication! Here’s what that might look like.
1. Help your child feel heard:
Regulate yourself first: It’s easy to get frustrated or upset in the face of back talk. However, responding calmly sets the tone for a constructive conversation. It also sends a clear message to your child that you’re willing and ready to listen.
Acknowledge their feelings: Validate their emotions by saying something like, “I can see that you’re feeling frustrated right now.” Or, “I hear how strongly you feel about this.” This demonstrates empathy and lets them know that their feelings are valid.
Encourage open communication: Create an environment where your child feels safe expressing their thoughts. Encourage them to elaborate on why they feel the way they do and what they want to communicate.
Use active listening: Show that you’re truly engaged by using eye contact, nodding, and/or paraphrasing what they’re saying. This reassures your child that their words are being heard and understood.
Offer problem-solving: Once they’ve expressed their feelings, work together to find solutions. This not only empowers your child but also teaches them that their opinions matter and can contribute to resolving issues.
By addressing the emotions beneath the backtalk, you can diffuse the situation or avoid an escalation. But you can also teach your child how to effectively communicate their feelings and needs in the future.
2. Support your child to regulate their emotions:
Back talk often happens when emotions are heightened. After all, no one is thinking clearly when they are dysregulated. And we all say things we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. Our children are no different, and it is unfair to expect more from them than we are capable of ourselves!
So if your child is dysregulated, this is not a time to correct their language or police their tone. They can’t hear you anyway. Your primary job when your child is dysregulated is simply to offer co-regulation. So again, focus on the message underneath the words and communicate to your child with your own words, tone, and body language, that you hear and understand them.
And then, when you are both feeling calm, you can move on to the next step and start teaching your child some more effective, respectful ways to communicate and get their point across. It is important to note here though, that it takes a long time, and many, many repetitions for children to learn these skills. It is developmentally appropriate for them to “talk back” and to have trouble finding the words they need to describe how they feel – especially when they are dysregulated. Many adults are still unable to do this. So go ahead and teach the skills below, but please keep in mind that children communicate like, well…children. And that’s ok, especially while they are still learning.
3. Teach your child to communicate respectfully:
While it’s essential to acknowledge your child’s feelings, it’s also important to guide them towards respectful and effective ways of expressing themselves. Here’s how you can help them develop healthier communication skills.
Model respectful communication: Children learn by observing their parents. Model the behaviour you want them to adopt by speaking respectfully, even during disagreements.
Teach alternative phrases: Help your child rephrase their backtalk into more respectful language. For example, if they say, “I don’t want to do this stupid chore,” you can suggest, “I’m not a fan of this chore, but can we discuss it?”
Role-play: Engage in role-playing scenarios where you take turns being the child and the parent. This interactive approach can help them practice respectful communication in a risk-free way.
Encourage “I” statements: Teach your child to use “I” statements to express their feelings and needs. For example, “I feel frustrated when…” encourages personal responsibility for their emotions.
Set boundaries: While encouraging open expression, it’s ok to make it clear that certain disrespectful language is not acceptable. Now, all parents have different boundaries here, and that’s fine. But it’s helpful to think beforehand about where YOU will draw the line when it comes to your child’s language. It is also important to remember that this line may move, depending on how well regulated you are and how much energy you have left in your tank. If you do not feel you have the capacity to respond calmly to your child’s back talk, take a break. Simply let your child know that you want to hear what they have to say, but that you can feel yourself becoming angry/upset/frustrated. Explain that you need a break to calm your own body and that you will come back to the conversation later. This not only helps you avoid escalating the situation, it also sets a great example for your child!
The take home message?
Learning how to respond to back talk from your child involves embracing the message and the positive intention behind it – their desire to express themselves, set boundaries, and advocate for their needs. By focusing on the emotions beneath the tone, helping your child feel heard and understood, and offering age appropriate guidance on respectful communication, you can empower your child to develop strong self-advocacy skills. Remember, nurturing healthy communication is an ongoing process that requires patience and understanding as your child learns and grows. As you navigate the journey of parenting, viewing backtalk as a stepping stone toward effective self-expression and healthy boundary setting within relationships will contribute to your child’s emotional growth and strengthen your parent-child bond.