The most common form of talking back is rooted in a child's natural desire to push limits to get his or her own way. Since children are children, after all, they have not yet learned to be diplomatic in expressing themselves. This kind of talking back is not serious, but it can be frustrating to you, and embarrassing in public, because it gives the impression your child is a brat and you're not a very effective parent.
Another form of talking back is rooted in anger. This type of talking back is more serious because it can often reflect a problem in your relationship with your child. There are times when children, for one reason or another, begin to become alienated from their parents and many of their responses are angry and defiant and oppositional. This kind of talking back is a signal for getting professional help from a child psychologist.
What I'm offering in this article is a solution for the everyday, garden-variety type of talking back that most kids throw at their parents. If you find you're feeling more and more upset with the way your child snaps back at you, then find a quiet time to talk with your son or daughter—and make sure it is a time when you're not feeling tense or angry. Now follow these five steps…they are not hard:
1. Build your child up. Find some nice ways to compliment your child. Why? Because you are about to criticize your child for talking back, and children always listen better to criticism after they have been made to feel good about themselves. (By the way, this works with adults, too.) Say something like, 'You know, Robert, your dad (or mum) and I are very proud of you. You're a great reader, and you play baseball so well, and you have so many nice friends.' Then, after honestly building up your child, say, 'But you know, Robert, there is one thing you have to work on…there is one thing you have to do better with. Do you know what that is?' If your child is like most kids, he won't have a clue. So say to your child, in a gentle tone, 'It's talking back.'
Okay, you've done it: you have lovingly faced your child with the problem. Now go on to Steps 2--5:
2. After you have focused your child on the problem of talking back, you need to help him understand why talking back is not acceptable. So you tell him a little story. It might go like this: 'Do you know how it hurts when somebody hits you or punches you?' Since your child has no doubt had this experience, he will be able to acknowledge how hitting hurts. Then you say, 'Well, words can also hurt. Words can be like punches. Words can hurt people's feelings. When you talk back, your words can be like a slap in the face.' You can find your own way to say this, but basically, you want to get across that sometimes we can use words to hurt people.
3. The third step involves offering to help your son or daughter with this problem. You remind your child how much you love him, but stress that talking back is a problem both of his parents want to help with. You are going to be your child's advocate—you are, in other words, going to be on your child's side to help improve his behaviour. Tell your child, 'From now on, we are going to have a new rule in this house. It is called, 'The Rule of Respect.' This rule means that when you're upset or angry you can still tell us what you're feeling, but you can't mistreat us with nasty words.'
4. After introducing 'The Rule of Respect,' explain to your child, 'From now on when you start to talk back, your dad (or mum) and I will give you a signal. Maybe the signal will be me putting my finger to my mouth or touching my ear or saying the word 'hot.' We can decide later what the signal will be. When Dad or I give you the signal, that is a warning that you are talking back and you have to find a better way to talk to us. We want to be real fair and we want to help you do better with this problem. If you see or hear our signal and continue to talk back, then we will put a check mark on a piece of paper that we will keep in the kitchen. That check mark means you will be going to bed 15 minutes earlier that night for talking back. If you get four check marks, then that means you will be going to bed one hour earlier.'
5. After Step 4, explain to your child that at the end of each week, you and his dad (or mum) are going to decide how well he has been doing. If it has been a good week—good means he has really tried and has been talking back less—then there will be a privilege. The privilege may be staying up later on the weekend or making popcorn or renting a video or having a friend over or playing a game with you. Each week you say, 'We will decide what privilege you want to try to earn.'
Many parents have found this five-step approach to talking back very helpful. Remember, a good part of parenting is to help your child become a socialized human being. You're the teacher and your child is your student and your home is the classroom. How to express yourself respectfully is one of the many lessons you will be teaching your child.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.