Stop the Back Talk

What do you do when your teen starts sassing you? Show patience and wait for the stage to pass? Or do you head it off immediately? Though talking back is part of growing up, disrespectful speech can quickly develop into a habit. Kids who start with talking back may come to think that speaking rudely to others is an acceptable way to get what they want.

Disrespectful speech damages relationships and causes contention at home, at school, and in the work place. Conversely, respectful speech denotes someone with a positive character who can leave a good impact on others. Teaching your child the correct way to communicate with others could affect their relationships in the future.

What qualifies as talking back? Sometimes it's hard to know which of your kid's speech to reprimand, and which to let slide. However, many teens aren't trying to be rude or hurtful when they start talking back. Back talk is part of adolescent development. "There is an actual reason for back talk," says Sarah Coyne, a Brigham Young University professor who studies adolescents and family life. "During adolescence, teens go through changes in thinking, and they are trying to develop their identities. They are trying to find out what they believe, and they are finding out that they can have an opinion different from their parents."

Make sure your child is aware when their speech crosses the line and moves from playful to offensive. Sarcasm is okay when it is done in good taste; it becomes hurtful when it is a personal attack. "Sarcasm is actually a way that teens work through their cognitive development," says Coyne. "It doesn't all have to be hurtful, and it's okay if they aren't trying to be mean." However, when the speech is meant to be rude towards a person or causes a negative reaction from the listener, then it is unacceptable.

Help make your child aware that many people are hurt by sarcastic comments, even if they don't show it. Tell your child to ask themselves before they speak, "How would I feel if someone said this about me?"

Back Talk Motives If your child has a tendency to talk back, it's important to examine their motive. Many kids are motivated by one or more of the following:

Stress: The teenage years are a time of anxiety - a time when kids are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in the world. Kids who are stressed at school and in their social life often release their frustration through talking back. Be sensitive to your child and the precarious age they are experiencing. Try to talk through their problems with them so they have a positive outlet for communication.

Self-Defense: Sometimes kids retaliate with back talk because they don't know how else to defend themselves. Consider your own speech toward your children. Do you talk down to them? Do you say things that might offend them? If you set a negative example for them, they will respond the same way.

Power: Many kids struggle to find their place in the family and in their relationship with their parents. They want to prove to you, the parent, that they are an equal. If it's a war of words your child wants, don't get caught up in the battle.

Attention: Talking back may be a cry for attention or a sign that your child is struggling. Maybe you are not giving him or her enough time, and this is the only way he or she knows how to get your attention. Make sure you’re giving your children the attention they need. If you talk with them regularly and show that you value their opinion, they may not feel the desire to talk back.

What to Do: Even if you know why your child talks back, the back talk will still be frustrating. Here are some ideas of how to stop the sass:

Be clear. Let your child know when he or she crosses the line. Coyne suggests that when your teen gives you lip, say something like, "I value your opinion, and I respect what you are saying, but you need to find a way to express yourself without being rude."

Be calm. You can choose how you will respond to your child's talking back. You can choose to lose your temper and return the rudeness, but that won't help you or your child. "A lot of back talk happens when parents lose their cool," says Coyne. "The parents and the teen end up feeding off of each other." Instead, walk away and say you will be willing to talk when your child has calmed down.

Be caring. Show your child that you care. If your kid is particularly rude one day, he or she may have had a bad day at school. Pick a time when your child is calm and ask about his or her day and what you can do to help. Get your children talking; they may simply want attention for their problems but don't know how to ask for it.

Before deciding what consequences you are going to give for back talk, consider how often, how much, and how severe the back talk is. "Parents should pick their battles very carefully," says Coyne. "I wouldn't make a huge deal of it every time it happens. That's just going to make it worse."

"If [the back talk] is a prolonged, horrible thing, then I think something needs to be done," Coyne continues. She suggests the parents take a step back and look at the relationship as a whole, and try to figure out where the real root of the problem is. "Maybe [the parent] is doing something to make it worse," continues Coyne. "If it's a really severe problem and the relationship is deteriorating, I would suggest counseling." Remember, don't take personal offense from your child's remarks. A lot of what he or she says is stemmed from anger, frustration, stress, or simply testing boundaries. Use this stage in your teen's life to your advantage by teaching them how to control their emotions through speech.

Set a calm example in teaching your children about acceptable speech, and they will learn how to deal with communication and relationship building. This will help them in the future as they work out problems through communication rather than anger.

Build a positive relationship with your children so they get the attention they need and are able to calmly discuss their problems with you. Soon you will be able to have yakety yak without the talking back!

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