Beating the back-chat beast

A quick retort, a roll of the eyes, a smart-aleck comment – back-chat is the bane of many parents’ lives.

It can also be one of the most exhausting and frustrating elements of parenting, an endless barrage every time you ask for chores to be done, homework completed, or reinforce the rules you have established in your home.

Back-chat might be annoying and infuriating at times, but it’s a common side-effect of growing up and gaining independence. Kids need a strong sense of personal power on an emotional level at all ages. When they can’t get it because parents are 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 house (flight), they’ll fight back by testing limits and trying to get a reaction.

The best way to stop back-chat is to foster independence within limits. That said, disrespect is not behaviour to be tolerated. Here are some tips to help you rein in those snide remarks:

1) Figure out where it is coming from. It could be a child testing the boundaries, or it could be a hungry/tired/grouchy child. Keep track of when back talk happens. Is your child irritable after school or extracurricular activities? Are they getting enough sleep? If you know the triggers, you can take steps to change or eliminate them.

2) Get calm; stay calm. How you respond to your child’s retorts can set the tone for your interactions. Kids can be extremely skilled at pushing their parents’ buttons. It can be extremely tempting to respond to a 5-year-old who declares, “You are not the boss of me!” with a quick, “Actually, I am!” But when you show that you are calm and in control, that sets an example for your child and shows him how he should behave.

3) Give, and ask for, respect. While children should know that they are safe to express their opinions and that mum and dad are listening to what they think and feel, they must also know that speaking to you respectfully and calmly is not negotiable.
Be sure to emphasise the message that you will not listen to what they have to say until they are able to speak to you in a calm and respectful manner.

4) Don’t get into a war of words. When parents respond to kids’ back talk with retorts of their own, they are inadvertently saying that this is an acceptable way to handle conflict. If you don’t want your child to learn that trading barbs is a good way to discuss problems, then do not respond until you can speak in a calm and controlled manner. In short, if you want to curb talking back in your child, do not feed the back talk beast.

5) Remember that oftentimes kids just want some personal power, and parents can give it to them – to a certain extent. For instance, allow them to decide what they are going to wear (within reason) or when they do their chores (also within reason). Small little concessions of power could prevent you from having daily power struggles with your child.

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