As a parent, hearing sassy words like “No” and smart-alecky comments like “I don’t have to” can make your blood boil. As a result, the biggest complaint I get from parents who attend my seminars revolves around how to neutralize back talk.
We all know that when young children fuss, moan, and back talk it can be a real challenge. Yes, it’s tempting to react with anger when children object, complain, or disapprove of your requests. However, if you want to lower the frequency, intensity, or duration of back talk from your child, it’s important to identify why the back talk is erupting and how to handle it with grace.
For upwards of two decades, my personal and professional experiences have taught me that back talk usually erupts from one of two sources.
Source one: Back talk reflects your kiddo’s inability to manage the stress that is generated from your request. In other words, he or she is hyper-aroused and emotionally reactive, unable to manage what’s expected for his age and stage of development. In this situation, your job is to be as gracious as possible for this type of back talk is not chosen, it’s part of the fight-or-flight reflex. It’s stress-behavior, not misbehavior.
Source two: Back talk reflects your kiddo’s unwillingness to cooperate. In this situation, your job is to be as gracious as possible and NOT be manipulated by his blatant disrespect. This type of back talk is intentional. It is a chosen behavior and is referred to as “kiddy terrorism.”
When back talk erupts, one of the best ways to manage it is to find your empathy. Feeling or expressing empathy might not be your first response to Mr. or Mrs. “sassy-pants.” However, empathy and compassion can be one of your best assets during these difficult moments, and for good reasons.
Empathy helps you respond instead of reacting to back talk.
It’s never fun being on the receiving end of the back talk. However, when it erupts it is important to stay mindful of a key fact: he or she is a child, not an adult. Although it’s not easy, it’s important to find your compassion, put yourself in his shoes, and try to experience the world from his perspective.
Keep in mind that the human brain is not fully developed until the mid-20’s and your kiddo’s brain is no exception. The more you stay clear about your kiddo’s underdeveloped brain, the more you will respond to back talk and not react to it with frustration, or any sort of troubled emotion. When Mr. or Mrs. sassy-pants back talks, you will be much less inclined to take it personally or find it embarrassing either. Instead, you will be more relaxed, view your child as “stuck in high gear,” and use the opportunity to help your child “downshift” into pro-social behaviors.
Empathy ensures that your disapproval is both kind and firm.
Let’s say you make a reasonable request like. “He Bobby. Please take your plate to the kitchen sink.” Let’s say your kiddo protests with a stern, “No! I don’t want to. You can’t make me!” I know it’s tempting to drop the hammer, and let ‘em have it, and “teach him a lesson he will NEVER forget about respect.”
Now imagine yourself going in a different direction. Imagine that you are able to find your empathy and not take the back talk personally. Your empathy can prevent you from “getting hooked” by his obnoxious and disrespect words or gestures. Now you are in a position to be a resource for your kiddo. Your empathic response can help calm his aroused nervous system so he will use the thinking part of his brain and become more rational. Imagine saying something like, “You seem upset…” “You are mad and want mommy to know that.” Even more, your empathy can help you begin to express your disapproval without being harsh, judgmental, or escalating the situation.
Below are four quick tips that I think will help soften the blow of any back talk moment.
Connect emotionally before you correct back talk.
This is huge! Science tells us that children who feel understood by parents, even when they back talk, tend to relax and demonstrate higher levels of self-control and cooperation.
Make sure that your expectations are balanced.
When you are on the receiving end of back talk, it’s important to make sure that your expectations are in harmony with what children can deliver emotionally or physically. If your expectations are too high, the situation will only escalate. For example, telling your two-year-old (who is either hungry or tired) to stop the back talk reflects expectations that are too high. If your expectations are too low (you do nothing when your two-year-old back talks), you are on your way to becoming a permissive parent who is at risk for raising a spoiled brat.
Slow-down as you express disapproval.
The key here is to use an empathic voice to “join” or “make contact” on an emotional level. Doing so will help soothe both of your nervous systems so you can use the backtalk as a “teachable” moment.
Keep your empathic statements simple.
Don’t use a bunch of words to communicate that you understand what your little one is going through. For your convenience, I have listed some empathic statements. The key is to try to memorize one, maybe two responses that fit with your personality. As you read the list below, imagine that your child is objecting, complaining, or protesting against one of your requests. Now imagine that you are slowing down, finding your compassion and then speaking from a calm and empathic place and saying something like:
- I know… you are angry or hurt.
- Looks like you’re having a tough time, buddy.
- This is so sad… looks like you have to take a break.
- What a bummer… now you have to be away from the fun.
- I know that you are frustrated, but sweetie it’s time to _____.
- I know… sometimes it’s hard when we can’t have what we want.
A Point To Ponder
The key to responding to back talk is building an empathic bridge with your youngster. Pick your favorite statement. Write it on a bunch of “Post It” notes and post them all over the house. (I’m not kidding, post ’em everywhere as memory cues). As you remind yourself of your favorite statement, you will notice that your compassion and empathy will increase and back talk will decrease. One thing is certain; your children will thank you for it, and family harmony is sure to follow!