Your kid disagrees with everything you say. He’s sarcastic and dismissive. If you ask about his homework or something he was supposed to do, he shouts at you or accuses you of being unfair. Every encounter has become a power play. You’re not sure how things got to this point but you like to get them back to some place more civil.
Welcome to the club! The good news here is that backtalk is a familiar part of the parent-teen/preteen experience. It’s normal. But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it.
Backtalk might be normal but it’s not pleasant and the unpleasantness rubs off on everybody. Backtalk might be normal but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Instead, here are some strategies to try.
- Stop the conversation cold. Don’t continue with whatever you were saying at the point you got a nasty response. Just stop. Fix your kid with a steely eye and say, “Please rephrase that.” If your child refuses to restate what she just said, the conversation is over. Walk away. You can reinforce the point you were making (“Get your room clean.” ) but don’t provide any opportunity for your teen’s reply. Turn on your heel and exit.
- Provide a script for disagreement. Your teen is learning that he has opinions and he loves to share them. What he’s not so good at yet is making his points without inflaming an argument. But this is a key skill. Help him to learn it. Guide him in using a formula for argument that includes first restating the other person’s point and then making one opposing statement (“You want me to clean my room. But I have to meet Greg at 3:00.”). Use this formula yourself, both as a way to model good conversation and as a way to defuse your teen (“You want to meet Greg at 3:00. When will you clean your room?”).
- Time your requests. Notice when your kid is already in a bad mood. That’s probably not the best time to ask her about her homework or even to ask her what’s wrong. Of course, teens are frequently in bad moods. Many of them are as self-centered as two-year-olds and they struggle to understand why the rest of the world doesn’t see everything their way. But being self-centered and insensitive yourself is no help. Give your agenda the best advantage you can by picking the best time to talk with your teen about what you want her to do.
- Talk this over. Find a time when your teen is feeling mellow and talk about what bothers you about your interactions and what change you’d like to see. Be friendly and respectful and be careful not to accuse. Provide your teen with a face-saving excuse (“I know you’re under a lot of strain…”) and take care not to back him into a corner. It’s possible that he doesn’t realize that he’s being offensive. It’s only fair to tell him that.
- Start early. Don’t wait for back-talk and disrespect to become a habit. Older elementary kids mimic what they hear bigger kids saying and they mimic what they see on TV. They may think it’s cool or funny to talk back to you, not realizing what your reaction will be. So draw the line at the first instance and be consistent in disallowing disrespect. This is an opportunity to teach the truth that there’s a time and place for everything.
- Don’t engage with anger. Backtalk is annoying and frustrating but if you let yourself get really worked up about it and start flinging sarcasm and disrespect right back at your teen, you’re going backwards, not forwards. Be a role model, difficult though that might be. Be the mature one.
Backtalk is more serious when it includes profanity and insults. Abusive speech is a signal of deeper problems, with your relationship with your child and with your child’s relationship to her social circle. If your teen and you or your teen’s other parent have serious issues with each other, family counseling is in order. If your teen and your partner will not go, go yourself. You need some guidance and support in handling this.
Most of the time, though, backtalk is just another opportunity for you to teach your child essential social skills. Instead of taking offense, take action.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.