5 Steps To Put the Brakes on Backtalk

Boy arguing

“I don’t want to!”

“You can’t make me!”

“You’re the meanest mommy!”

“I’m not doing that!”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Backtalk is the number one parenting complaint I hear from the thousands of parents I’ve worked with. But does knowing how common backtalk is make it any less frustrating? Of course not!

Backtalk 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.

There are many reasons WHY kids talk back, so it’s important to get to the root of the issue to determine which strategy will work best.  

The best way to stop backtalk in its tracks is to give 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 backtalk, arguing, and whining that no one enjoys.

Here are 5 steps to put the brakes on backtalk:

1. Give Kids Power

Find opportunities for your kids to assume some control over their own world–picking their own outfit (for a toddler) or planning an activity for a family vacation (for a teenager).

The truth is, when kids’ need for power isn’t met, they will exert their power in all sorts of ways–waging war at the dinner table, prolonging bedtime, refusing to cooperate during the morning routine, or talking back.

In each of these situations, kids have legitimate power–we can’t FORCE them to eat their broccoli. We can’t FORCE them to lie in their bed. We can’t FORCE them to pick up the pace in the morning. And, as much as we wish otherwise, we have no control over what comes out of their mouths.

As a Positive Parenting educator, I teach parents that proactive parenting is the most effective way to see behavior changes in kids. In this case, the more positive power you give them PROACTIVELY, the less you’ll have to REACT when they exert their power in negative ways.

The most effective discipline strategies are those that proactively prepare the child so the parent doesn't have to reactively respond

2. Don’t Play a Role

Communication is a two-way street, and parents have to “own” the role they play in the power struggle.

Be aware of your communication style and minimize the amount of ordering, correcting, and directing you do with your kids (and spouse)!

The truth is, parents unknowingly contribute to the power struggles that produce backtalk by bossing kids around too frequently.

Take a moment and switch places with your kids–would you be able to hold your tongue if you were told what to do all day? In the working world, it’s equivalent to working for a bossy micro-manager–it’s exhausting, frustrating, and most of all DISCOURAGING.

If you spend the majority of your time ordering, correcting, and directing your children, they are sure to be discouraged too. Instead, spend intentional time playing, listening, and engaging with them to proactively ward off the backtalk.

By engaging more and ordering less, you’ll be amazed at how much more cooperative your children will be and how the backtalk will slowly diminish.

Note: For Positive Parenting Solutions members, take the Parent Personality Assessment in Step 1 to discover how your personality priority affects your parenting style.

3. Pay Attention

Just like the need for power mentioned above, your kids have an attention basket that needs to get filled every day.

All humans have a basic need for belonging and significance, and for children, these needs are most effectively met when you give your child undivided attention. Before you say, “But wait! I give them PLENTY of attention!” let’s break this down a little further.

As a starting point, I teach parents to spend 10 minutes every day with each child. Here at Positive Parenting Solutions, we call this a MIND, BODY AND SOUL TIME® routine because it has incredible effects on the mind, body, and soul of your children.

In order for the 10 minutes to satisfy the child’s basic need for attention and meet the criteria for a MIND, BODY AND SOUL TIME® routine, it needs to fit the following 3 categories:

1. It’s Child-centric: This means the child calls the shots. By giving your child full reign over how you’ll spend this time, you’re filling both the power AND attention buckets–sounds like a win-win, huh?

Be prepared to play dress-up, re-enact a favorite movie, kick a soccer ball around, have a dance party to their favorite tunes, read a treasured book, build a LEGO castle–whatever your child suggests for 10 minutes, you enthusiastically oblige.

2. It’s Uninterrupted: Put away the phone, the remote, the calendar, the book–all of those things can wait. It’s vitally important your children have our undivided attention during this time.

If you have more than one child, find something the other kiddos can be doing during this time, so you can engage with each child separately.

3. It’s Identified and Claimed: Give your 10 minutes together a name: “Mommy and Daniel’s Special Time” or “Our Togetherness Time” or any name you two come up with. By naming this time together, your child is able to categorize this time together as meaningful and significant.

Naming this time also gives YOU credit in your child’s emotional bank. While it may seem silly to “take credit” for spending time with your child, it is a gentle reminder to your child that you’re consistently investing in their life. When you are finished, simply say, “Wow, I really enjoyed our time together. I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow!”

By investing the time up front, you’ll see a decrease in the backtalk you’re experiencing.

Spending this quality time with each of your children will greatly reduce the power struggles you’re facing, and your children will begin to realize everyone is on the same team!

Note: For Positive Parenting Solutions members, refer to Step 1 in the online course and the Ultimate Survival Guide–“MBST: Your Secret Weapon for Better Behavior”–to learn everything there is to know about this life-changing tool.

4. Refer to the Rules

Kids thrive under structure and routine. While it may seem counter-intuitive, power struggles occur more often when kids DON’T know what to expect. More often than not, backtalk is simply pushback to an expectation that hasn’t been clearly outlined or enforced.

While flexibility in parenting is necessary at times, consistency and stability will set you up for long-term success. Give your children very clear expectations for your house, and set up explicit 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

While your children are putting on a drama performance worthy of a Tony award, your job is to be an unimpressed attendee.

When you get upset and respond with a “you WILL not talk to me that way, young man!” they SCORE a power payoff. 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!

Final Thoughts

Backtalk is extremely frustrating, but with the right tools, you can diffuse it in no time!

Don’t be surprised, however, if once you get backtalk under control you start seeing other power struggles flare up. That’s why I’ve created an entire parenting course–to help parents with ALL of their power struggles, not just one.

If you’d like to see if Positive Parenting Solutions is a good fit for your family, I’d love for you to JOIN ME FOR A FREE CLASS. I’ll give you even more tools to get your kids to listen without nagging or yelling!

Title image: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock https://www.shutterstock.com/photos

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.