How to Stop or Deal with Backtalk and Talking Back in Teens Children and Kids

As a parent, sometimes it seems like your day is filled with an endless stream of backtalk from your kids—you hear it when you ask them to do chores, when you tell them it’s time to stop watching TV, and when you lay down rules they don’t like. It’s one of the most frustrating and exhausting things that we deal with when we raise our kids.

“Your job as a parent is not to get your child to accept the rationality of your decisions. You just need them to follow the rules.”

 

Backtalk comes from a sense of powerlessness and frustration. People don’t like to feel powerless, and that includes children. So when kids are told “no” they feel like something’s been taken from them. They often feel compelled to fill that empty space with backtalk. I want to make the distinction here between backtalk and verbal abuse, because many times people confuse these two very different things. If your child has started saying hurtful or harmful things, the line between backtalk and verbal abuse has been crossed. For instance, if a child is cursing you, calling you names or threatening you, that’s verbal abuse. If your child is saying, “This isn’t fair, you don’t understand, you don’t love me,” that’s backtalk.

Verbal abuse is a very negative behavior and has to be dealt with aggressively and up front. It’s not that backtalk is harmless, but it’s certainly not as hurtful and hostile and attacking as verbal abuse is. For parents who are dealing with verbal abuse in their home right now, rest assured that we’ll be addressing this topic in an upcoming article.

Backtalk itself can take several forms. One is the kid who can’t keep quiet, no matter what you say: he or she has got to have the last word. And then there’s the child who wants you to understand their point after you’ve already said “no.” It’s easy for kids to get into the mindset of, “If I could just explain it better, you’d understand my situation.” So you’ll get kids who present their problem or request repeatedly in the hopes that their parents will give in and respond to it. If their parents don’t give them the answer they want, those kids will then try to re-explain, as if the parent doesn’t understand. Often, as they launch into their explanation for the third or fourth time, the child and the parent will both get more frustrated until it ends up in an argument or a shouting match.

Don’t Respond to Backtalk: You’ve already set the limit
Why do parents react to backtalk after they’ve already won the argument? I think parents often see it as their job to respond to their children: to teach, train and set limits on them. And backtalk is an invitation to do just that. Just as the child re-explains things to the parent if they’re told “no,” the parent “talks back” and re-explains things to their child. So the parent’s mindset seems to be, “If you really understood what I was saying, you wouldn’t talk back to me—you’d accept my answer.” Let me be clear here: That’s not a rational mindset. It leads parents into attending and prolonging arguments in which they don’t need to engage. Parents sometimes see backtalk as a challenge to their authority, but as long as you accomplish your objective, the fact is that your authority is fully intact.

Here’s an example:

Your child: “Can I stay out until 10 tonight?”
You: “No, because you have to get up early tomorrow for soccer practice.”
Your child: “Who cares? I don’t need that much sleep.”

You should stop right there. Any conversation you engage in after that is meant to convince your child that you have sound judgment. Know this: that’s the wrong objective because it addresses a completely different issue—whether or not you made a good decision. So once you give a reasonable explanation for the rule you’ve stated, your job is done. You can repeat it again if need be. You’ve already won the fight. But when you try to convince your child that you’re right and they continue to challenge you through backtalk, you’re just going to get more frustrated. Your job as a parent is not to get your child to accept the reasonableness and rationality of your decisions. You just need them to follow the rules. Look at it this way: when a cop stops you for speeding, he doesn’t care if you think that 35 miles an hour is too slow. He just tells you what the law is. If you argue with him, he repeats what the law is. If you don’t accept it, he hands you your ticket and walks away. If you become verbally abusive, he arrests you. Try to think of yourself as the cop here—you’re the parent making the rules, and your child needs to accept them or pay the consequences.

Shutting Down Backtalk: The Plan
In order to put a stop to backtalk, there are several things you have to do. First of all, when things are good, sit down with your child and lay down some ground rules. Discussions about these rules are critical to good communication and to cooperation down the road. I guarantee that you’ll feel better as a parent if you set up rules and follow them with your children. Your goal then becomes following the ground rules instead of trying to achieve your child’s acceptance. The first rule is, “I’ll explain something once and I’m not going to talk more after that. If you try to argue or debate, I’m going to walk away. If you follow me or if you continue there will be consequences.” You set limits on backtalk and you don’t give it power.

Another option is to set up a certain time of day in which your kid can talk back to you. You can say to them, “From 7-7:10 p.m., you can ask me to re-explain all my decisions. Save it for then. If you need to, write it down in a journal. Then at 7 o’clock, we’ll sit down and I’ll explain to you why you can’t date a 22 year old or how come you got grounded for smoking. But at 7:15, our discussion is done. If you try to keep it going there will be consequences.” That way, if you feel like you want to give your child an outlet to air his or her grievances, there’s a way to do it without getting bogged down in constant arguing.

Remember, there are two kinds of days that a kid has: there are good days and then there are days when things don’t go their way. Don’t try to fight the tide of disappointment that kids experience. They will use backtalk to get their way, but as a parent, you have to accept the fact that they will not always be happy with your decisions. Your job is to set the rules and enforce them because those roles are for your kid’s development and safety. Whether they like those rules or not, they have to learn to live with them.

Ron Huxley Respects: I have a lot of respect for James Lehman’s Total Transformation Program. Give him a look see and join our Parents “Inner Circle” for even more parenting help.

Changing Children’s Behavior: Take Some Measurements!

Does your child have so many problems that you don’t know where to start? Are you so frustrated that you can’t see or think straight? Do you feel helpless about how to make changes in your relationship with your child? Perhaps the first place to start is with a few measurements.

When behaviorists study people’s behavior, they start with a baseline. A baseline is a tool that is used to measure the frequency and duration of someone’s specific behavior. A baseline can be used to measure the frequency and duration of both desirable and undesirable behavior. This dual measurement can tell parents what they want to increase and what they want to decrease, all without a lot of screaming, hair pulling, or medication!

The first step in determining a baseline is to measure a child’s behavior when no intervention or tool is being used with the child. This way parents can get an accurate estimation of the child’s behavior. Baselines will allow a parent to measure the effectiveness of a particular parenting tool they are using. If a parent discovers that a tool is not getting the desirable results (i.e., the misbehavior continues at the same level as before or is much worse), then the parent knows to abandon this approach and try another. Parents then find a different tool to use that gets them better results. Sounds easy, huh! Actually it isn’t. But with a little practice parents can use baselines to objectively and rationally approach a behavior problem and change it.

The next step is to gather a few basic materials: a piece of graph paper, pencil, and daily calendar. Write across the top of the graph paper the behavior you wish to increase or decrease. For example, you might write: “I want to increase the number of times that Tommy takes his bath on time” or “I want to decrease the number of times that Mary hits her little brother.” Picking the behavior may not be as easy at it sounds. You must pick one behavior to focus on and not get confused with other problems at home. Be very specific about what you want to increase or decrease. Don’t write: “I want Tommy to behave.” That is too general and vague. You will never achieve that anyway, so why frustrate you and Tommy. Pick a behavior that is particularly troublesome and/or dangerous to start.

To get a baseline, simply count how many times a day that particular behavior is occurring for one week. Average it on a per day basis by taking your weekly total and divide it by seven (days of the week). That will be your baseline. Let’s say that you want Tommy to take his bath, on time, every day. At this time, Tommy only takes his bath, one time, once per week. One is your baseline. Anything you use to increase this frequency will be considered effective. Anything that does not or reduces it to zero, is not effective.

After you have picked the behavior, use the bottom of the paper to list the days of the week from the calendar (Sunday, Monday… Saturday). Along the left side of the paper you will write a range of numbers, starting from the bottom and going up. The range could be from zero to ten, if the behavior you are targeting is a low frequency problem or zero to hundred, if it is a high frequency problem. I would suggest sticking with a low frequency problem. It will make the process simpler and easier to monitor.

Now comes the fun part: picking the tool. What will you use to increase or decrease your child’s behavior? You could do what you have always done, like Time-Out or Removing Privileges. Or you could read up on a couple of books, ask a wise friend or teacher, or search the Internet, looking for various interventions to try. Regardless of where you go for your tools, choose only one. Use the tool of choice for a period of one week and faithfully measure how many times a day that behavior occurs with the application of the tool. Be sure that all caregivers (moms, dads, relatives, day care staff, etc.) use the same tool or you will not get a good measurement. In fact, if dad is doing one thing and mom another, you could be sabotaging each other’s efforts. Get everyone on the bandwagon and cooperating.

Chart the number of times the behavior occurs (its frequency per day) and the time that it occurred. In order to see if change has occurred, parents must check to see if there is any difference between the baseline number, before any intervention was made, and the number of occurrences after an intervention is made. This final number should come close to your target number. Let’s take another look at Tommy and his bath time. Mom and dad decided to take away Tommy’s television privileges if he did not get in the bath on time each day. They did this by simply stating the consequence ten minutes before bath time to give him time to prepare. If Tommy did not get in the bath on time (they gave him a five minute window of opportunity either way) they stated that there would be no television privileges the next morning and stuck to their decision. After a couple of days, Tommy realized that mom and dad were serious about this bath time business and decided to cooperate. He was able to get in the bath, on time, three times in one week, as a result of mom and dad’s new interventions. This was a definite increase from the baseline and considered successful by everyone.

Don’t worry if the change doesn’t occur immediately. Children test their parents to see if they will be consistent with these new interventions or if parents are going to fall back to old, inconsistent ways of disciplining. One to two weeks may be needed to witness any real results. If the behavior is still not changing after that period of time, find a new tool. It is also important that you be consistent. Inconsistency will reward the behavior in the wrong direction.

What if one parent is willing to cooperate but the other is not? This makes our task harder but not impossible. Simple measure during a time that you are able to control, say, during the daytime when dad is at work. Obviously, you must pick a target behavior that occurs during that time period and find a tool that you can administer alone. Children will adapt to the different parenting styles of their parents, even if they are exact opposites.

Reward all positive, behavioral changes. This will help to maintain the behavior over a long period of time. Don’t resort to bribes, such as sweets, money, or toys. This will backfire on you. Use social praise, like: “Great job” or “I really appreciated how you did that.” This is usually sufficient for children. Any negative behavior should be ignored, as much as possible.

How long should you use the baseline tool? Use the tool for as long as you need. Once you are getting positive results from your new tool, you can go on to targeting a new behavior or put the chart away until it is needed again. Behavior tools, like the baseline, have some limitations. Very smart children see your strategy and try to go around it or do as they are asked, during the specific time it is asked, and then immediately misbehave right after. For example, Tommy may get into the bath on time so that he can watch his favorite television programs, but right after the bath, he may become rude and obnoxious to his little sister. This is a weakness in the tool, not you. Ignore the weakness for now. All you are concerned with is increasing getting into the bath on time. Later you will address, with the baseline tool, the rude behavior.

The value of this parenting tool is in its ability to get a baseline measure of a child’s behavior and to test the validity of the parenting tools your are using. It allows you to cope with feelings of frustration and target behavior objectively and without negative attention to the child. This allows the parent and the child to concentrate on more enjoyable activities together.