Does this sound familiar?
You tell your kids you’re all going to the store and one immediately responds with a whiny “Whhhhhyyyy?”
You calmly explain that you need some groceries and a response comes back immediately: “I don’t waaaaant to go! Sophie’s mom never makes her go grocery shopping!”
Managing to stay calm, you explain that different families have different rules and in your family, you don’t do things the way Sophie’s family does. And then, you ask your kids to put on their shoes.
(Yaay for a calm positive parenting moments, right?)
But instead of being appeased and hopping up to put on her shoes your child responds back with “And Sophie gets twice as much pocket money as I do!”
And in a matter of seconds, the conversation turns from pocket money to the ‘fact’ that everyone else at school has a mobile phone.
And you find yourself having a full blown argument over the necessity of a mobile phone for an eight-year-old!
How did that happen?
All I did was asked my kids to get ready to go to the store! And here I was embroiled in a completely unrelated power struggle with my child.
If you have a strong-willed child with a mind of their own, you know what I’m talking about…
They have an opinion about everything and a rebuttal for every request.
Talking back is a way of life for them – as natural, and perhaps as involuntary, as sneezing when pepper gets in your nose.
They don’t do it to be disrespectful. They do it because… that’s just who they are!
On the one hand, you don’t want to squash their spirit. After all, there are studies to show that kids who talk back are likely to be more successful in life.
On the other hand, you are only human. There is only so much back talk you can take. You can’t afford for every request to go to the grocery store to turn into a debate over something entirely unrelated.
I’ve been there and I know how you feel. And over the years, I’ve found a way to deal with back talk without being drawn into power struggles, and without squashing my child and her wonderful spirit.
Here are the 5 tricks I use –
#1 Channel Eeyore
In order for back talk to work, you need to be drawn into a conversation. You need to engage and start feeling emotional about a topic.
Basically, you need to bite the bait that results in an argument.
But what if that didn’t happen? What if you could consider this whole thing a little like a game of strategy – a bit like tic tac toe?
So, your child makes a move, and then you make a move that prevents a disagreement from occurring.
The first thing is to prevent yourself getting emotional and that’s where I like to channel Eeyore.
You know Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh? He’s the rather glum donkey. Grey in color and grey in personality.
Channeling him does two things. It slows you down to his pace and stops you wanting to ‘win’ the game. It’s also calming for you and your child.
So when your child says something like, “I hate grocery shopping” or “Sophie’s parents don’t make her go shopping” you can respond with a “Hmmmm…” in a flat, monotonic, slightly dispirited voice.
A voice that sounds too tired to continue the conversation. A voice that no one wants to keep talking back to. A voice that counters your child’s highly spirited retorts.
And stops back talk dead in its tracks.
#2 Have Ready One-Liners
The secret to preventing this is to have one or two one-liners ready to respond, so you’re not drawn into an unhealthy, unhelpful conversation.
I ‘steal’ mine from Love and Logic, who provide tools for raising confident, resilient children. I find their system too harsh to fully implement, so I use a slightly modified approach.
But their one-liners are fabulous.
Imagine you’ve just heard, “Sophie’s mom never makes her go grocery shopping!” and you roll out one of the following lines (in your best Eeyore tone):
“Nice try.” (keeping it light)
I personally find “Hmmm” a great one because it’s like a mini-meditation for me, that still gives a response 🙂
Now, the first time I used this it did inflame the situation a little. My daughter got quite frustrated that I wouldn’t be drawn into the conversation.
She said things like, “What are you doing?”, and “That’s just weird!” and eventually “Why won’t you talk to me?”
But I stayed calm. At some point though she seemed to have caught on and realized there was no point trying to continue the conversation and moved on.
#3 Be a Broken Record
Broken record is an assertiveness technique that allows you to get your point across without entering into an argument.
You can use it with your kids, and it’s also an incredibly powerful conflict resolution tool.
It lets the other person know they’ve been heard and understood. It allows you to be empathetic, without giving in.
So use it to show you understand and then restate your position, calmly. Here are a few examples:
“I know you don’t want to go to the store, but we need to buy some groceries.”
“I can hear you’re frustrated, but we need to go to the store.”
“I know you’d rather stay here and play, but it’s time for grocery shopping.”
As long as you’re sincere in your empathy, this technique is effective. The person knows you’ve heard their message, but you cannot be moved to change the outcome.
#4 State What You Want
Sometimes our kid’s back talk is… well, rude. Maybe they’re tired or they’re irritated by their sibling.
Whatever the reasons, they can snap or yell at us. Maybe it’s, “No! I don’t want to!” or maybe they’ll try, “You can’t make me!”. Or worse.
If this happens, you can calmly state what you want, or what you will do.
Try saying things like, “I’d like you to calm down and speak to me, instead of yelling please”
Or, “I don’t like being disrespected and that voice makes me feel like you are disrespecting me. Will you please try to speak nicely?”
You can show empathy if you feel up to it, and say something like, “I can see you’re angry. I understand it. But like everyone around us, I deserve to be treated respectfully, even when you are angry. Do you need a minute to calm down before we continue this conversation?”
When you’re both calm, you can tell your child exactly what words or tone of voice you found unacceptable.
#5 Walk Away
But what if your child doesn’t want to calm down? What if she isn’t ready to do so yet, and continues to escalate the situation?
The key here is to realize that this is normal. It will happen sometimes.
The thing is to monitor yourself. If you feel your temperature rising, take steps to manage your anger so you don’t end up yelling, making the situation even worse.
Your kids are likely to model your angry behaviour when they’re angry. I remember wondering why my three-year-old stamped her foot for emphasis and stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at me.
Until I found myself doing that to her. Ooops!
Being angry is completely fine. It’s normal, and not something we should try to conceal or feel guilty about.
We just need to learn how to regulate our response to the anger. So, if the situation has turned into an intense standoff, consider walking away.
You can tell your kids what’s going on by saying something like, “This situation is escalating. I’m starting to get very upset. I’ll get back to you when I’m calmer.”
Now you are doing exactly what you asked of your child a few minutes back. Kids notice these things. And they learn. At first it may seem a little weird, but once you both get used to it, your child might surprise you by asking to be excused for a few minutes instead of lashing back at you.
Going back to where we started, if you need to go to the grocery story, no doubt your first preference would be for the kids to drop what they are doing and happily skip out the door behind you. That is of course the best case scenario.
Life doesn’t always dole out best case scenarios though.
What then? Do you prefer a full blown argument, or a child who takes time but eventually collects themselves and then skips out the door?
Let’s say it’s the absolute worst case scenario… would you rather have a major fight and drama, or a child who sulks in an attempt to deal with you interrupting them, but heads out the door nevertheless?
With some kids talking back is just a part of their personality.
You can listen to conventional parenting advice, treat it as a sign of disrespect and try to squash it, possibly also squashing your child’s spirit along the way.
Or you can remind yourself that it a sign that your kids are likely to be successful in life, and learn to handle it compassionately.
Yes, back talk can be disruptive and upsetting for both you and your family.
But rather than treating it as an act of defiance to be steamrolled, challenge yourself to think of it as a game of strategy.
Simply deflect their attempts to confuse or complicate your requests.
You don’t have to be drawn into a convoluted conversation about how good other kids have it.
You don’t have to put up with rude behavior.
You don’t have to lose your cool and feel guilty about how you responded.
Instead, channel Eeyore and have your responses ready. Be a broken record, or tell your kids what you want.
Stick to your guns with cool composure and pretty soon you’ll find back talk a thing of the past!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a moment to consider your child’s behavior.
- What happened the last time your kids talked back? How did you respond?
- Was there a turning point – a crucial event or moment where things took a turn for the worse? How could you manage this better another time?
- What buttons does your child push in you – how do you feel when faced with back talk?
- How can you change the patterns you may have developed?
- What strategies can you put in place to prevent back talk without squashing your child’s wonderful spirit?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Brainstorm what you can say to prevent back talk the next time it occurs. Make a note you can put on your fridge.
- Review some of the Love and Logic one liners and choose one or two that resonate with you. You don’t need a whole swag of these in your toolkit, one or two are enough. Start visualizing yourself using them at the next opportunity.
- Imagine yourself channeling Eeyore the next time your child talks back to you, so you can stay calm and empathetic, while at the same time conveying bored disinterest in being drawn into an argument.
- Recall the last time your child talked back to you. Using the broken record technique, write down a few things you could have said during the conversation.
- If it seems impossible to deal with your child’s back talk ask yourself this: “If it were possible, how would it be achieved?” Make some notes.