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              kid and mom with daughter illustrated back talk coming out of her mouth

              Ask Dr. Bronwyn

              How To Handle Back Talk and Rude Behavior

              Just in time for the most candy-soaked and sleep-deprived time of year, our resident child development expert Dr. Bronwyn Charlton Seedlingsgroup, shares how to help children learn that back-talk and disrespect aren’t effective strategies for getting their way.
              Written By
              Dr. Bronwyn Charlton
              Illustration
              Loris Lora

              Kids aren’t the only ones to use a rude tone, mean words and disrespectful gestures when they’re feeling frustrated and angry. We’re all capable of going low and saying things we regret when our buttons are pushed. For some reason, though, these kinds of provocative outbursts feel especially unacceptable coming from the mouth of babes.

              Like any of us, of course, they don’t mean what they say in these moments, although logically, it might feel as if what they really need is to be “taught a lesson” through punishments or threats. But when we focus on parenting for the short-term, e.g., “You can’t talk to me that way!” We miss the opportunity to respond in ways that will help our children learn how to stay calm enough to communicate in acceptable, not regrettable ways, even when they’re angry, frustrated, stressed, or overwhelmed.

              Here are some ways to help children learn that back-talk and disrespect aren’t effective strategies for getting their way or communicating in a relationship, before, during and after it occurs.

              Before the Back Talk

              Accept the fact that punishments and threats, at best won’t make a difference and, at worst, backfire. Does this mean that sassy back-talk should be allowed or is acceptable? Definitely not. Just that the words we’re hearing aren’t actually the problem but the result of our child’s incapacity to manage their big feelings and stay regulated enough to communicate more effectively. So, if we’re relying on threats and punishments to “teach them a lesson,” the only thing we really end up doing is escalating their already out-of-control emotions and reinforcing the negative behavior. Not to mention that harsh disciplinary tactics do nothing to grow a child’s ability to handle their big feelings the next time, which let’s face it, can be a big ask even for us!

              Check your lens. The lens through which we view a behavior influences how we react to it, so check your beliefs about back-talk and disrespect. If you assume that your child should “know better,” and/or is being purposefully hurtful, obnoxious, or bratty (usually because that’s how you were brought up), it’s no wonder you’re more likely to react to back-talk in ways that are harsh and punitive. When instead, we see these behaviors through a realistic lens – that they’re the result of a dysregulated brain – we’re better able to stay calm ourselves and to carry out the limit and our parenting intentions.

              Know your triggers. It’s easy to feel attacked, annoyed, hurt, etc., by venomous vitriol spewing forth from our little darling but being able to manage our own emotions in these moments is critical. If you haven’t already, spend some time figuring out the things that set you off -- for many parents, disrespect and back-talk top the list. Otherwise, without greater self-awareness, we’re unlikely to notice the unconscious and automatic feelings/thoughts such behaviors provoke, and flip right into “fight-or-flight” mode ourselves.

              Make a calm-down plan (for you). To help make it more likely that your child’s back-talk doesn’t send you straight into a harsh and reactive (e.g., yelling, threatening, shaming) spiral, take your own time-out before responding. In a calm voice (fake-it-till-you-make-it), let them know you can see that whatever you said/did made them feel (insert big emotion) and that you’re going to take a moment yourself, to get calm enough to figure out how to solve the problem. Giving yourself a chance to calm down makes it more likely you’ll be able to respond instead of react and thereby de-escalate instead of aggravate the situation. When we react in similarly angry and disrespectful ways, we just end up joining the power struggle and reinforcing the unwanted behavior.

              Teach and practice. Don’t assume that your child came knowing how to have an argument without saying mean words or how to ask for things in acceptable ways, even when tired, angry, or stressed. These are relationship skills that need to be taught and practiced! When they’re rude or disrespectful, be very specific about what they’re saying that’s not okay (e.g., the words? tone? eye rolls? body language?). Make these conversations fun and easy. Emphasize that it’s always okay to feel upset, annoyed, angry, etc., but that it takes practice letting people know in ways that aren’t hurtful or rude. Role-play with different example scenarios and practice using calm voices and thoughtful words when angry or in conflict.

              Be specific with your expectations. Make it clear how you’d like your child to speak even when they’re angry, tired, hungry, anxious, etc., instead of using vague terms in the heat of the moment to describe what’s not allowed. For example, instead of saying “Don’t talk back!” or “Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you!” you might say something like, “When I tell you it’s time to do your reading and you don’t feel like doing it yet, instead of ignoring me which is rude, or using mean words like “You’re stupid,” you need to let me know that you’re feeling like you need more of a break and ask if you can do it after dinner instead.

              During the Back Talk

              Don’t take it personally. Every one of us at some point has slipped up and said things we regret when we’re “seeing red.” It’s critical we remember that especially given that the part of our child’s brain responsible for self-control is still developing, meaning speaking reasonably when emotional is way harder for them! We mustn’t take what our child does or says personally or interpret/react to their provocative exclamations at face value.

              Get calm before you respond. “Get calm before I respond,” should be one of our parenting mantras. In fact, use your child’s explosive outbursts as a signal that they’ve “flipped” into “fight” mode and need you to stay calm so you can help them feel more regulated and in control of what they’re saying. It’s only natural to get triggered when our sweet little dumpling starts being disrespectful or sounding “bratty.” Still, when we manage to stay calm ourselves, and respond, rather than react, we model self-regulation, a critical skill.

              Stay on course. When we become distracted by their mean words or tone, we miss the real message their behavior’s communicating or the feeling driving it.

              Be a positive role model. Children learn more from what we do than what we say, so it’s no wonder that the way we respond to our child when we’re angry, the tone we use, and even our mannerisms become their default reaction. When we respond calmly to their disrespect and back-talk, we teach self-control and model respectful communication, even when angry.

              Don’t jump in to “fix” or “rescue. An important part of our job as parents is to give our child the space to experience and learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. When we try to “fix” or “rescue” them instead, we send the message that we don’t believe they’re capable of managing these difficult moments themselves.

              Ignore the words or tone your child uses (no matter how hard they try to provoke you) but acknowledge and validate their underlying feelings. Empathizing with the feeling, doesn’t mean we agree, just that we hear and acknowledge it, and the more we do so, the better our child becomes at noticing and managing their feelings themselves.

              Hold the limit, in a calm and connected way. When we calmly empathize with the struggle our child’s having, and at the same time hold whatever limit it was that set them off, we make them feel seen and understood, and at the same teach them that back-talk and disrespect aren’t effective strategies for getting their way or communicating.

              After the Back Talk, When All Is Calm Again

              Repair. Model taking responsibility by acknowledging any part of the upset that you contributed to.

              Talk about how hard it is to control our response sometimes. Explain that controlling what you say to someone when you’re feeling really (insert emotion) can be hard for everyone, but the more we practice staying calm enough to be intentional about what we say, the better we get at it.

              Love unconditionally. Make sure your child knows that while their actions or words might be unacceptable, the person they are is wonderful and loved unconditionally.