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How to Handle Back Talk

Did that Come Out of My Child's Mouth?
Back talk: It stings, it shocks, it embarrasses, and it can turn your home into a battleground. Jim Bozigar, head of community outreach at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, runs a back-talk workshop for parents. He says that with a little understanding and self-restraint, parents can put a lid on talking back.

"The reasons for back talk are as varied as the personalities of the children who use it," says Bozigar. The child could be hungry, tired, or in a transitional period. But children who talk back usually do have one thing in common: They're trying to separate from their parents and exercise control over their lives.

How should you handle these outbursts? Bozigar suggests parents do some behavior tracking: "For three days, make notes about what your child says, what the situation was, and how you responded. See if you notice any patterns. And keep in mind that when kids talk back, something else is going on underneath. The goal is to help them express it constructively."

Six rules for fighting fair
You won't ever be able to avoid disagreements with your kids, but you can learn how to fight fair. Bozigar suggests that each family member adhere to the following rules:

  • Don't attack
  • Don't belittle
  • Don't condemn
  • Define what the problem is
  • Define how to rectify it
  • Figure out what can be done to prevent it in the future

Preschoolers
Common back talk: "No!" and "Why?"

How to respond: Model good behavior. Try saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to do things we don't like to do?" Don't yell back and don't be sarcastic. Your response is going to determine what happens next. Parents will never be able to control their children. The only person you can control is yourself. When you model control, you teach kids how to control themselves.

School-Age Children
Common back talk: "You don't understand!" and "It's not fair!"

How to respond: Kids this age care more about what their peers think than what you think. They'll try to dangle bait to get you going. Don't bite! You'll lose: School-age kids always need to have the last word. Instead, let the child own the problem and empathize with him. Try saying, "You don't think I know what's going on with you right now and that's frustrating, but you're being disrespectful. Please go to your room until you've calmed down and can talk rationally with me."

You'll have to be proactive to keep on top of the "It's not fairs." Limits help kids develop inner control. Set limits for when you think your kids will be ready to cross the street safely, stay up later, go on a date, etc. Then try saying, "You know that in our house the rule is ______"

Preteens
Common back talk: "What's the big deal?"

How to respond: Instead of taking responsibility, this age group often puts parents on the defensive. Say your daughter borrowed a scarf that had sentimental value and then lost it. You might blurt out, "How could you be so irresponsible!" Look out -- she'll most likely turn that response around on you: "Oh and you've never lost anything before? Excuse me for not being perfect!" Instead of attacking, try talking in concrete terms: "You did this, so I feel this." Use the restraint and respect you'd show a guest in your home. The goal is for you to express your feelings in a way that allows your child to take responsibility for them.

Teens
Common back talk: "Leave me alone!" and "It's all your fault!"

How to respond: Beware -- they may look like grown-ups, but teenagers are not completely rational. They think differently than adults and children, and often feel they're invulnerable. Be concerned about their responses and listen to them. Help them to see that you're on their side. If they say they want to be left alone, back off but don't give up. Take a more subtle approach. Write them a note without attacking or blaming, and say that you'd like to hear back from them. Always keep the dialogue open. Try talking in a lower voice. If you model screaming and shouting, that's what you'll get in return. And remember, you are always the authority in your house; you can set limits. As parents, you cannot be friends with your children, but you can still treat them in a friendly way.

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