Are you fed up with backtalk or not sure how best to respond when it erupts? If so, you’re not alone. Perhaps you face the same battle each morning, asking your child to put on his shoes, only to be met with a scowl and an attitude. “I don’t want to!” your child shouts.
Backtalk is serious stuff, you reason, and your child needs a good old fashioned “discussion” or maybe a lengthy timeout. But what if … there’s more to the story? What if your child isn’t merely a sassy little stinker after all?
Get clear: Why did my child backtalk?
Behaviorists might tell you your child backtalks because he is craving power and attention. He is “testing the limits” and wants to get a reaction out of you. They will tell you he’s trying to control his world and the adults in it. They will tell you that he’s using backtalk as a means to “escape” things like chores or homework. Or my favorite. Your child is backtalking because you’ve accidentally trained him to think that he can get his way when he talks that way. If this sounds familiar, you’re probably tempted to throw your hands up because you don’t know what else to do. What other reasons could there possibly be for a sassy attitude?
Here at In Touch Parenting, we believe there’s more to the story. Let’s take a look at some hidden causes that can drive backtalk.
Identify the hidden causes for why kids backtalk
Although backtalk appears to be misbehavior, it is more likely to be stress behavior. When children are hyper-aroused, there’s a significant shift from what’s called the “learning brain” to the “survival brain.” Young children have enormous difficulty attending to and processing what’s going on around or inside them. They are highly susceptible to shutting down, acting impulsively or exhibiting all-out aggression toward themselves or others.
If you tell your child to calm down or change his attitude, it will only add to his stress and make things worse. Threatening to remove privileges or enforcing a time-out will usually add to the pressure rather than reduce it. At In Touch Parenting, we assert that when children are hyper-aroused or over-stimulated, backtalk is not a rational choice. Instead, backtalk, in most situations, is the product of an emotionally reactive brain. Children are not trying to control their world and the adults in it, despite what behaviorists might say. They just need support, understanding, and guidance through their stress-induced behavior.
Recognize the biological factors that drive backtalk
If your child is backtalking, biology may be to blame and for a good reason. Some children are just born with a persistent temperament and need some “polishing” when it comes to being assertive and asking for what they want. So don’t take it personally if they lash out at you or struggle with their words. For other children, they may just be emotionally dysregulated, and their backtalk may be an SOS signal. Most likely, this is the result of having an unmet need or a blocked goal like wanting to play instead of putting on his shoes for you.
Remember our acronym H.A.L.T? For many children, backtalk may be the result of being
Perhaps you and your child spent the day at Disneyland, enjoying every ride at the park. On the way home, he melts down in the car and backtalks. And then you remember… your kiddo child hasn’t eaten since lunchtime! You’ve been walking for hours without rest! No wonder he’s melting down. By recognizing the biological aspects of backtalking, you may be able to turn things around quickly by meeting those needs.
Recognize the psychological factors that drive backtalk
The late psychologist Jean Piaget, who was known for his pioneering work in child development, asserted that the egocentrism of a young child leads them to believe that everyone thinks as they do and that the whole world shares their feelings and desires. This sense of oneness with the universe leads to the child’s assumptions of magic omnipotence. Not only is the world created for them, but they can also control it.
Egocentrism starts at age 2, spiking around age 4 and then slowly fading as children enter adolescence. As such, you shouldn’t be surprised when your children backtalk because it’s age-appropriate and developmentally “right on schedule.” Translation? Nothing is wrong with your child, and nothing is wrong with your parenting style! Whew! Feel better now?
Recognize the social factors that drive backtalk
Since young children believe the world revolves around them, your parental expectations might be too high. For example, egocentric children tend to think, “Let’s have fun!” In contrast, parents tend to think “Let’s get it done!’ This creates conflict every time, which can trigger situations filled with reactivity and backtalk.
A second social factor can be you’ve been busy, and your kiddo is craving time with you. Backtalk may be an age-appropriate attempt to say, “Please understand me! I don’t have the right words to tell you what I want, what’s annoying me or what’s got me so upset!” You want to respond carefully, but how?
How to respond to backtalk
Behaviorists encourage parents to ignore unwanted behavior. Others will tell you to punish children when they backtalk. Their reasoning? The more you ignore backtalk, the quicker your child will learn that sassy talk is not the way to get what they want. Ignoring backtalk sounds logical until you ask a fundamental question. When you are stressed out, do you like being ignored? Most likely not. Ignoring someone almost always triggers unmet attachment needs and makes things worse instead of better.
Here at In Touch Parenting, we assert one thing over and over: how you related to children is vital. It is important that you connect with your child first before you correct any misbehavior or backtalk. If children feel you are interested in what’s got them so upset, they tend to calm down and cooperate. Children who know you are accessible and emotionally available will calm down, stop the backtalk and behave better.
Read Kids more accurately
After asking why their children might be backtalking, In Touch parents try to recognize the unique ways their children off-load their stress and pain. For example…
- Some kids blame, shouting something like, “You never let me do anything! Because you made me eat all my peas, I can’t play with Jake! You promised we could stay at the beach all day!”
- Some kids criticize, shouting things like, “That’s stupid! You’re so mean! You’re too strict!”
- Some kids simply shut down. They seem easier because they don’t backtalk. However, they just don’t do what you want. Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, you’re on your way toward reading your child and identifying the unique way he unleashes his stress.
Reading kids more accurately promotes greater awareness, increased sensitivity, and much more confidence to manage kids who are offloading their stress with backtalk. Remember, if you read well, you lead well.
Decode the sassy talk
As a parent, it’s important to recognize your child’s unique way of offloading stress or expressing pain. Otherwise, you will miss what’s driving their unwanted behavior. When they begin to backtalk, say something like, “I’ve noticed that when you get sassy, you usually want something. I think you want me to help you with your Legos. Is that right?” Or try this: “I don’t understand backtalk, but it sounds like you want to stay at the pool longer. Is that what I’m hearing?” Or this: “You are upset and want me to know that. Is that true, or did I miss something?” Conversations like this will help you connect with your child before you correct the unwanted behavior.
Catch ‘em doing good
All children want recognition for good behavior. If you see your child doing something great, don’t be afraid to tell him. Say something like, “I see how hard you are trying to tell me what you want without getting sassy. I really appreciate that.” Just watch him break into a smile.
Model respect and show them the way
Modeling, simply put, is “monkey see, monkey do.” Since your children are always watching you anyway, why not model some good old fashioned respect and see if you can’t show them the way? Here are a few phrases that might do the trick: “I love you too much to argue.” Or, “When your tone of voice matches mine, we can talk.” Or, “I know you can do this, so tell Mommy what you want without yelling or sassy talk. Say it with your inside voice. ” Or this one: “Wow. Young men who backtalk don’t get what they want. It sounds like you want to play a bit longer. What might happen if you ask me in a calm voice?”
Use your relationship as leverage
Children want to help us. Researchers tell us that using the simple phrase “be my helper” motivates children to cooperate much better with parents and teachers. It makes them feel special and helps them connect. The next time you find yourself on the receiving end of some serious backtalk, try making “I statements.” You could say something like this: “I think you are mad and want me to know that, but I only respond to young men to speak to me nicely.” You’ll be surprised at the positive reaction you’ll most likely get.
A Point To Ponder
When responding to backtalk, you may be tempted to ignore, correct, or even backtalk yourself! But as an In Touch parent, you can take a different approach. Recognize your child’s unique way of expressing pain. Assess his emotional needs. And then, take a deep breath, respond calmly, model respect, and connect before you correct him. You’ll find that sassy ‘tude may soon disappear!