Backtalk: Should You Ignore It?

Does this sound familiar?

Stop hitting your sister. If you don’t stop, you’ll have to go to your room.”

“You can’t tell me what to do!”

“I most certainly can! Now get to your room…or else.”

Backtalk can be terribly aggravating to parents, often evoking a strong emotional response. It feels hurtful and disrespectful, and we just want it to stop.

As parents, we all have our triggers: the things our kids do and say that set us off. And many of our triggers are related to backtalk and the shocking and hurtful things kids say when they’re angry. The child who says he hates you doesn’t really hate you, but is angry and uses this hurtful way to express it.

As long as your child is not being destructive, not threatening others, and actually following through on your direction, it’s okay to ignore some backtalk.

So it’s natural for us to respond emotionally to backtalk: screaming and yelling, bantering back and forth, using sarcasm, feeling victimized, or inconsistently ignoring or pouncing on our child for the same behaviour. Sometimes we just give in to it. Other times we look to place blame elsewhere (e.g., she must have learned that from her cousin, or at school) and we don’t put the responsibility where it belongs: on our child.

To Ignore—or Not?

You can ignore backtalk when your child quietly talks back, yet is following through on what you asked. If he stops hitting his sister and goes to his room, despite saying that you can’t make him, he is doing what you wanted. His words, while angry, can be ignored (it helps if we remember that feeling angry is okay). As long as your child is not being destructive, not threatening others, and actually following through on your direction, it’s okay to ignore some backtalk.

You should not ignore backtalk when your child is at risk of hurting herself or others, including threatening others. It is not okay for you or others to feel intimidated by your child’s backtalk. You will need to address this, although the middle of an angry outburst is not the time to have a discussion about the problem

Addressing Backtalk

In order to get a handle on the backtalk, we need to focus on our child’s behaviours instead of responding emotionally.

When things are calm, let your child know that you didn’t like what he said and how he said it.

You don’t need a long, heavy-duty conversation, but let him know that what he said was a problem and that while being angry is okay, saying angry things are not.

If, however, your child’s anger and behaviours were more intense, then you need to have a conversation about what is — and is not — acceptable behaviour. Explain that there are consequences for unacceptable behaviour, and be ready to follow-through on those consequences.

When responding to backtalk, it’s essential to use positive and effective parenting roles — and communication consistent with those roles — rather than responding emotionally.

The limit setter. “I don’t want you to talk like that to me. If it continues, I won’t be able to take you to the movies this weekend.” You’ve been calm and clear about what the problem behaviour is, how you expect it to change and what will happen if it doesn’t.

The problem-solver. “I know you were really angry at me and really wanted to watch the rest of the TV show before taking your shower. You’ve let her know that while it’s okay to be angry, it’s not okay to be disrespectful.

The coach. “You’ve been working on controlling the things you say when you’re angry. Your teacher reports that you’re doing so much better at school. Now, you need to work on this at home.” You’ve recognized and described the behaviour that is improving, while offering support and direction for continued improvement.

When Backtalk Happens in Front of Others

When backtalk happens in your home, there may be times when you want to remove other family members from the situation. Their presence is not likely to be helpful, especially if the backtalk is veering toward a full-blown tantrum. Getting your child away from others (e.g., in his room), or removing others from the immediate area will help him to calm down. It also lets him know that this type of talk is not acceptable to other people.

If your child talks back to you in public, you can respond similarly: reduce the onlookers.

It’s hard in these situations; we feel so embarrassed by our child’s behaviour and judged by others. In a calm and business-like manner, set the limit, give a direction, and disconnect from any emotional response: “If you don’t stop talking to me like that, we will leave this store right now, and you won’t get those new jeans you wanted.”


You Can Start to Change Your Response to Backtalk at Any Time

Intervening more effectively with backtalk is something a parent can start to do at any time. Try to be as objective and honest as possible about the behaviour—and your response to that behaviour.

As you start setting limits, your child may push the limits further; just stick with it. Once your child realizes you mean business, and are willing to follow-through on the consequences, behavioural changes will occur over time. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but with gradual steps, there will be improved behaviour and you’ll relate to each other better.