“How do I get my child to stop talking back to me and instead use kind words (without going insane!)?”

Backtalk is perhaps one of the most common challenges parents face with children in almost any age group. Although it can occur for various reasons, the core need that it represents is a child’s need for control. When children feel they lack control or input in a situation, they are more likely to resort to backtalk. To help deter back talk, we can try several different strategies:

  • Offer Choices: Although we cannot allow our children to have complete control over their lives (they are children, after all), we can offer some age-appropriate choices to help them feel empowered. This might mean allowing young children to choose their clothing or the order of events (e.g., bath first or story reading first?). For older children, you could offer choices about how they manage their time (e.g., homework first or chores first?) or what activities they are allowed to participate in. 
  • Model Kind Words: Children may respond with backtalk when upset or frustrated because they lack the emotional regulation skills needed to use more appropriate language. We can help them by modeling kind words in our interactions with them and others around us. Try to avoid responding to children’s backtalk with sarcastic or harsh language; this will only reinforce their poor use of language. Instead, try to remain calm and give them the opportunity to have a “redo” to restate their point with kinder language. 
  • Address Core Needs: Underlying the backtalk is sometimes a genuine need, such as hunger, sleep, or connection. Before addressing the backtalk with discipline, consider if there might be one of these needs (or another need) working under the surface. Try to address these needs first. Often, children may not express their needs directly (especially something like needing attention from you) but instead resort to backtalk.

In addition to all these strategies, setting a limit on backtalk can also be important. Children need to understand that it is inappropriate to use this type of language with their parents. The most effective way to approach a boundary is to clarify that the behavior (i.e., backtalk) is inappropriate, but the underlying emotion they may be experiencing (i.e., frustration, disappointment, etc.) is okay. You might say, “I understand you are very frustrated that you have to do chores, but using that type of language is not appropriate. Please try again and use kinder words.” With guidance from you, hopefully, backtalk will diminish as children mature. 

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