Sometime around the age of 11 – or possibly younger, if you are particularly unlucky – the back talk begins. Suddenly, your kid morphs from a reasonably compliant child into a sassy, sighing, why-me teen back talk machine.
As much as we adore our kids, there are moments when we can’t help but feel frustrated. It can be super-challenging to deal with our beloved kids when they sass us constantly. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s one of the most frustrating, enraging thing we parents have to put up with. Wah!
But don’t give up the good fight yet! While it feels like a never-ending cycle of woe, fortunately there are some truly effective strategies for coping with and curbing kids’ tendency to argue incessantly.
The why-oh-why of teen back talk
Before diving into how to handle back talk, it’s crucial to understand why kids engage in this relentless behaviour.
It’s mostly because they are going through a phase of intense growth and change, both physically and emotionally. Teen back talk is one of the many manifestations of a kid’s desire for independence, testing boundaries, and asserting their own identity.
It helps to see back talk as a positive sign that your child is moving towards being an autonomous, capable person who sticks up for themselves… Ironically, the only thing worse than back talk is zero back talk – none of us want to raise a walk-over!
As well, some kids really are just ‘born arguers’. If you have a child for whom every instruction is a mere suggestion, you’ll already know about it. Some kids are born sassing the midwife… they will most likely go into politics or law (or jail, possibly, the jury is still out on this one!).
How to shush the sass
Regardless of the whys and hows of your back-talking angel, here are a few suggestions for curbing the cheek.
1. Keep calm
Hard though it may be, it’s vital we remain calm and composed. Responding with frustration or anger, or engaging in a shouting match will only escalate the situation. Remember the mantra: I am the one with a fully-functioning frontal cortex here. (Yes, a new mantra for us all.)
Take a deep breath, count to ten, and remind yourself that your role is to guide and support your teen through this challenging phase.
2. Listen to their perspective
Again, this is a tough one, especially when you’ve merely asked them to pick a towel off the floor and they’re arguing like they’re in a parliamentary debate. Phew, these kids! Refer to point one above (deep breath, mantra) and encourage your teen to calmly express their opinion.
Practice active listening and demonstrate empathy. Acknowledge their frustrations and validate their emotions, letting them know that you are listening. Sometimes that’s all a kid needs before doing what you asked them to do in the first place.
3. Put the brakes on
If they start to escalate things (‘always’, ‘never’) or you find yourself listening to complete drivel (‘I picked up the towel last week’), gently bring them back to your initial request.
Make it clear that their thoughts and feelings are valid, but remind them that there are appropriate ways to express themselves without disrespecting others. Sarcasm, eyerolling and sneering will not be tolerated.
Another important ‘brake’ you may want to engage is setting some ‘no arguing’ rules. That is, times when you won’t engage in a discussion when you make a request. This is a fair thing for a parent to do and a good lesson for kids to learn. Not everything in life is a negotiation.
4. Be consistent in your expectations
The above is especially true when it comes to kids learning how to harmoniously live with others. If they constantly leave their stuff around, drag out doing their share of chores or flat-out refuse to help at all, it’s time to set the park brake.
Let them know exactly what you expect and why. The why is important here – our kids are old enough to know why we do the things we do. ‘You need to pick up your towel and not leave it on the floor so it dries out and doesn’t harbour bacteria’, ‘It’s fair that if I cook the meal, you help to clean it up so everyone is sharing the burden of getting dinner on the table’, etc.
Once you’ve explained what you will and won’t tolerate, be consistent.
5. Cut them some slack
It’s only fair that if you’re setting your expectations, your child gets to do the same. There may be some particular jobs or routines around the home that they genuinely don’t understand the need for. Or they may want to argue their case for going out later with friends. Perhaps it’s time you relaxed their curfew after all, or changed the way you do things to suit their preferences as well as your own.
This is where truly listening to what your child is saying and taking the time to logically argue your own case is vital. Remind them that ‘everyone else is doing it’ isn’t going to cut it, but a neatly thought through list of reasons just might.
Remember that teen back talk is often a reflection of their struggle for independence and a desire to assert their individuality. They are pulling away from us and our way of doing things, and that’s a good, healthy thing.
By fostering open communication, setting clear boundaries and working things through together, we can all hopefully navigate this challenging phase with grace.