5 Steps To Put the Brakes on Back Talk

backtalk5steps_facebookAs a parent, the words “No, I won’t,” or “You do it,” from our kids is enough to make us cringe. In fact, back talk is the number one parenting complaint from all the parents I’ve worked with—and it can be so hard to get kids to respond to our requests without whining, eye-rolling, or simply ignoring us that many of us can’t help but snip back, “You’ll do it because I said so,” or “Don’t you dare talk to me that way!”

Back talk might be annoying and, at times, infuriating, but it’s a common side-effect of growing up and gaining independence. At all ages, kids need a strong sense of personal power on an emotional level. When they can’t get it because we’re ordering them around or doing everything for them, they lash out with words. It’s a typical “fight or flight” response: since they can’t exactly move into their own apartment (flight), they’ll fight back by testing limits and trying to get a reaction.

The best way to stop back talk in its tracks is to allow our kids the positive personal power they need. By fostering independence within our limits, we can help them grow up, as well as limit the back talk, arguing, whining that no one enjoys. Here’s how:

1. Give kids some power
Find opportunities for your kids to assume some control of their own world, whether that means picking their own outfit for the day (for a toddler) or planning an activity for a family vacation (for a teenager). The more positive power you give them, the less they’ll try to get it in negative ways.

2. Don’t play a role
Recognize that parents may unknowingly contribute to the power struggles that produce back talk by bossing kids around too frequently. After all, would you be able to hold your tongue if you were told what to do all day? Limit the ordering, directing and correcting you do by finding alternate ways to get cooperation, and you may find that back talk is greatly reduced.

3. Pay attention!
Your kids have an attention basket that needs to get filled every day—they need your undivided attention, and will get it one way or another! Spend 10 minutes twice a day getting into each child’s world with no interruptions (let your phone go to voice mail), and you’ll see get a lot more cooperation in the future.

4. Refer to the rules
Set very clear rules for your house, and set up very clear consequences for any child who chooses to test them. You don’t have to be overly harsh or strict, you simply need to stick with the limits you put in place.

5. Keep your cool

defiant little girl

Your kids may be talking back simply to get a rise out of you—so don’t give them the satisfaction! Simply say, “I feel hurt by the way you’re talking to me. When I hear that tone of voice, I’m going to walk away. We can talk again when you can speak respectfully to me.” Then walk away. Next time it happens, there’s no need for even a warning—simply leave the room. You’re sending the message that you refuse to participate in a power struggle. And when there’s no one to fight with, there’s no fight!

By following these 5 steps, you’ll be able to greatly reduce the amount of backtalk you hear from your kids. And isn’t that music to your ears?

Tired of daily back talk? Ready for your kids to listen without you resorting to nagging, yelling and punishing? You’ll LOVE the discipline tools in our free video series! Sign up for our free video series to learn No Stress Steps to Get Kids to Listen…Without Losing Your Cool. Get instant access to videos here:



  1. Most of this I agree with – AND…. I think we can be clear about rules/limits without consequences. Our culture believes that the best way to teach is by having an “impact” and we do this by making kids hurt. The long term result of this is that our kids learn that there are times when it important to hurt someone to teach them. Then we are surprised that they “intentionally” hurt us – sometimes even by talking back.
    There are lots of other ways to hold kids accountable to rules without imposing power from above. Consequences teach our children that they follow rules when someone is looking (external motivation) other tools can teach kids to do the right thing when no one is looking. Alternatives to consequences that also set clear limits: 1) Solutions: Reasonable, Related, Respectful AND Helpful. 2) Asking for repair. “Hmm… that isn’t how we do it at our house how are you going to fix it?” 3) Connect before correct. “I know that you are angry and upset but it isn’t ok to call your sister names. We don’t call each other names in our family. How are you going to fix this?”

  2. What do you do when you leave the room and your backtalking child follows you wherever you go?

    • this is a major part of my problem. a lot of times i calmly and sweetly explain to my nine year old that “I know he would like a different answer/result but that it is not going to change.” this may be frustrating for him but it teaches him that tempting me to loose my temper or getting me to engage in arguing will not work and will not get him whatever thing he is wanting. i also let him know that the way that he is talking to me is not respectful, that it is not okay, and that i am warning him. if he does not comply he is punished (example: sent to his room for 5-10 minutes where he often finds often finds something to play with or a book to read). I’ll add that his attitude is adjusted b/c he usually forgets whatever thing that set him off and then we get along well. also i never hold it against him or say anything in an aggressive way about it. from time to time a “talk” may be required but if i stick to this routine things pan out.

  3. I have to respectfully disagree with Dr. McVittie. “Consequences” are a fact of life. Making good decisions most often leads to good results. These good results, by definition, are called consequences. Making poor decisions in life also leads to consequences. I don’t think that the idea of letting a child know ahead of time that there are clearly established consequences to a given action, in and of itself, should necessarily lead to some latent manifestations of poor behavior later on in their life. By the time we are adults we take for granted that some actions lead to bad consequences and some lead to good consequences. And yes, these consequences will be at the hands of other individuals most times. I think understanding the nature of consequences, both good and bad – whether they be from parents, bosses, teachers, friends, etc. – and what role our actions play in how consequences can affect our lives, is a very important concept to instill in children. Effectively teaching what “respect” embodies is the element that allows, and has allowed for eons, for parents to set up a structure that allows children to thrive without skipping the all important concept of consequences. As with most things that can be absorbed intellectually, trying to really understand consequences without true experience with them would leave our children lacking proper perspective. I’ll go further and state, that it is my belief that if we do not consciously teach our children the reality of consequences and how they play into normal interpersonal relationships, we are doing them a very large disservice.

  4. @Carol – in a calm moment – NOT when you’re upset or she’s upset – practice or role-play what she can do to get you to engage with her. Remember – you aren’t going to respond to the backtalk – but what can she do to let you know she’s ready to speak respectfully? Maybe it’s putting her hand on your shoulder or telling you with her calm words that she’s ready to speak in a kind and respectful way. Practice that in a role play so she’ll be better prepared to do that in the heat of the moment. Recognize that this is a TRAINING opportunity. The goal is to give her alternative strategies to use instead of backtalk. You may have to repeat the training several times before it becomes a habit.

    @Dr. McVittie and David – thank you for sharing your perspective. Consequences should never be used with the intent to hurt, humiliate or make the child “pay” for this behavior. Consequences should always be used a training tool so children learn to make better choices in the future.

  5. @David, well said. I agree.

  6. I agree with everything but one point in this. I think walking away in the middle of their talking back without says something is disrespectful. As parents we need to lead by example. I would never walk away from my husband without saying something, even in the middle of an argument, why would I do this to my child?

  7. @Alivia, I agree with you provided you can say something respectful to your child. I have been known to walk away while telling my child, “I’m too angry/hurt/upset to talk right now. I’ll be back when I’ve calmed down.” (And then I try to return in 5 minutes or less.) But I’ve also been known to walk away without saying anything, which leaves them wondering what’s coming next (which can be scary for them). I typically apologize when I walk into the room and say something like, “I’m sorry that I just walked away. But if I had spoken to you then I was probably going to say something hurtful and I just don’t want to hurt you.” And then I explain that they were hurtful to me and that the way they spoke to me was unacceptable. And on with the lesson. I don’t think walking away without an explanation is the worst thing you can do. Hurting your child because you are upset enough that you’re not in full control of yourself is far worse and requires much more effort to fix. Does this mean I need to mature as a parent? I’m sure it does. But I’m also convinced that I’m not the only one. :)