How to Respond When Your Teen Talks Back

eyerollingTeens are impulsive. They don’t think things through, nor do they often consider other people’s viewpoints. They are learning how to stand up for themselves, but with so little practice, they might not be the best at it yet. You may just view backtalk as annoying, but a parent’s role in stopping it is vital. Your job is to help your teen change rude behavior by teaching them how to express anger in a healthy way, how to state their viewpoint respectfully despite their frustration, how to solve the problem at hand, and how to listen to the other’s viewpoints.

Sometimes parents don’t deal with backtalk because they feel overwhelmed by everything else they have to do or because they fear it will only make their child angrier, but avoiding the problem does not work, and you have left your child unprepared to express himself in a positive way as he enters the adult world. The way you respond to their backtalk influences whether or not it will continue – in your family and in your teen’s future relationships.

Establish Expectations

The first thing parents should do when backtalk rears its ugly head is to decide what behavior is, and is not, acceptable to you. It’s important to choose your battles during this time. For example, if your teen is calling you names and rolling their eyes at you, then clearly the more important behavior to address is the name-calling. Perhaps eye rolling – although annoying – is a fairly harmless way to express frustration and not worth the fight, while name-calling is completely unacceptable. Or, if you feel that both behaviors need to be addressed, choose to work on one first, and then move on to the next behavior. If you try to tackle everything at once, it can become overwhelming and you might give up. Either way, the behaviors you want to address are a personal decision that you and your spouse must make, and those battle lines will look different in every family.

Once you have decided what behaviors you will not accept, it’s time to sit down with your teen, during a calm time, and state clearly what he/she can or can’t do. Be specific about what is respectful and disrespectful. Although you may feel that swearing is obviously disrespectful, you need to state that clearly to your child. Do not assume they know which behaviors are unacceptable. Make it clear that in your house, name-calling, threats, or put downs won’t be tolerated. Set clear, specific, firm limits on what is allowed and not allowed, and explain the consequences for using unacceptable behavior.

Problem Solve Together

When you are calm, sit down to discuss your expectations with your teen. Make it clear that you want everyone in the family to be respectful to each other. Then, invite your teen to offer ideas and strategies about how to address the problem behavior, too. They may have some valuable information that could help the situation. For example, if your teen says she talks back because you always tell her to do the dishes during her favorite TV program, you can work together on a plan to address that problem. Working together to problem solve the situation will improve your communication, build respect, increase your chances of success, and improve your teen’s self-esteem.

Additionally, families should meet every few months to discuss the rules and consequences to see if they are working. Again, these meetings should take place when everyone is calm. If the tone becomes frustrated or angry, take a break and try again later. Teens should have the opportunity to request changes to the rules or consequences, as long as it is done in a polite manner. Parents should be willing to listen with an open mind. Your teen may have matured since you set the original rules and be ready to take on more responsibility.

Set Consequences

If your teen breaks a rule, there must be consequences for that behavior or your expectations will mean nothing. Some parents like to give warnings, but the problem is that, many times, they are not consistent. Sometimes they will give one warning before they hand out the consequence. Other times they will be angry and offer no warnings, while sometimes they will feel generous and provide multiple warnings. You are not doing your child any favors by being inconsistent. Consider your conversation about expectations as your teen’s warning (and tell your teen it’s their warning, as well), and as soon as they break a rule by calling you a name or doing some other unacceptable behavior, immediately remove privileges or impose additional responsibilities.

Consequences should be realistic. For example, for every mean comment they give you, you could cut a dollar off their allowance, reduce their curfew by 30 minutes, or decrease their screen time by an hour. Small punishments that fit the crime and get their attention will be most effective in the case of backtalk. It is an excellent idea for you and your spouse to decide ahead of time what consequences you want to give for each type of behavior. Although you will not be able to think of all the possible scenarios ahead of time, it will at least provide a starting point so that in the heat of the moment, when your teen talks back, you won’t overreact and dole out some unreasonable punishment – you will already have a well-thought out response.

Be confident, firm, and consistent. Consequences are not up for discussion or argument, nor should they be explained in a long-winded lecture. Do not negotiate with your child, back down, or let him/her draw you into an argument about the consequence that you are enforcing. If they insist on arguing, ignore them. Your teen cannot argue by himself, so if you refuse to argue back or make eye contact, it will eventually stop. Your teen will try very hard to argue or negotiate a consequence, and if you give in, he will simply continue the negative behavior and argue your next consequence. Earlier, you explained the expectations and consequences at a calm time, and now it’s time to hand out the punishment and move on.

Stay Calm

Nothing will make a parent’s blood boil faster than a disrespectful, back-talking, eye-rolling, sassy teen. Take a deep breath. Staying calm is the most important thing you can do when your teen talks back. Yelling or arguing back will only escalate the situation. If you stoop to their level and shoot a smart comment back to them, you have only taught them that back talk is acceptable behavior, regardless of what you have said. Instead, do whatever you need to do to keep your temper in check. You might need to walk away for a few minutes to calm down – go to another room, shut the door, and take deep breaths.

Ignore their mean comments, and when you are calm, simply state that they have broken one of the rules, that their behavior does not meet your expectations, and give them the consequence you have already decided upon for that behavior. Do not threaten or yell, but tell them in a stern voice that you don’t appreciate their behavior.

Be Reflective

We often tell our children to follow the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Make sure you’re following it, too. Think about how you speak to your child most of the time. Are you sarcastic or rude? Do you put them down? You can’t call your child a “spoiled brat” and then expect them to refrain from calling you names later. Teens mimic their parents, and if you treat them with respect, those lessons will ingrain themselves into your teen’s actions.

Don’t take the backtalk personally. It can really hurt when your child starts screaming, “I hate you!” and it can feel very personal. But believe it or not, it’s just angry talk. Try to focus on the cause of their angry words instead of the words themselves. No matter how angry your child is, he/she still loves and needs you.

Final Thoughts…

Parents, keep in mind that you are training your children for adulthood. Backtalk does not resolve conflicts, and it is your responsibility to help teens learn how to express anger and problem solve, even when they are frustrated. Backtalk is disrespectful and very one-sided, which is why you must set limits around this behavior. You are coaching them to find healthy ways to express themselves in difficult situations so that they can be successful in college, marriage, and career.

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