Does your child always demand the last word? “Mary, please do the dishes.” “Mom, I can’t. I’ve got homework.” “Doing the dishes is your job isn’t it?” “Yes, but I have a test tomorrow.” “Dishes only take ten minutes. Please be done by the time I get back.” “It’ll be your fault if I get an F.” Sound familiar? Parents and children often jab at each other ping-pong style, and the conversation escalates into confrontation if neither stops to understand the other’s viewpoint. Children are put on the defensive; parents feel their authority is being challenged. Nobody wins. Talking back should never become disrespectful. A respectful form of disagreement reveals that your child is willing — and comfortable—communicating with you. Try these suggestions for the child who always answers back.
Expect respect. Parents’ ears are quick to pick up disrespect ; keeping your tone respectful is not always easy, yet it is critical as a modeling tool. Occasional spurts of talking back need not be reprimanded, providing your child is not disrespectful. Expect talking back during developmental stages when your child shows spurts of independence. Having the last word helps the child solidify her position and reaffirm her independence. Unless it’s a biggie or is clearly done to taunt you, chalk it up to normal development. A child needs to learn how to make his point without being rude. There is a fine line between disrespect and spunk.
Between seven and ten years of age, part of the normal development of a child is to protect their interests. They are developing a sense of fairness. Any comment or request from you that is perceived by them as unfair will cause them to naturally go on the defensive. One day I wrongly accused Matthew of dawdling while the rest of the family was in the car waiting for him. He was quick to defend himself. The reason why he had to go back in the house was to get his shoes. This was not talking back, but rather a developmentally appropriate comment from a child at a stage when he is learning a sense of social fairness. Being open to your child’s defense (as long as it is respectful) conveys that you are willing to listen and respect the child’s viewpoint. This sets the stage for opening avenues of communication with a teenager.
If things escalate into a shouting match, the talking back needs to be corrected. One day I overheard this dialogue between Martha and then eight- year-old Erin, who had talked back: “Erin, sit down. I want to talk with you,” Martha said calmly. She had interrupted the battle by changing her tone of voice. The two power strugglers sat down. “I’m the mommy. You’re the child. That doesn’t mean I’m better than you, but I’ve lived a lot longer and I’ve learned a lot more. So I’m a bit wiser — as you will be when you’re a mommy. I understand why you don’t want to clean your room, but I expect you to obey.” Then came a hug. Finally, Martha told Erin, “I’ll help you get started.”
If the talking back is becoming disrespectful and more frequent, evaluate your whole parent-child relationship. Is your child angry about something in his situation or with you? Is a distance developing between the two of you? Have you been so preoccupied lately that your child has to shout and make a nuisance of herself to get you to listen to her? It’s inventory time in the parenting business again. Here’s an example. It was winter, a busy time in my pediatric practice, as well as deadline time for a book. These combined stresses left me less tolerant of the usual minor irritations that occur daily in the life of growing children.
Time-out from talking back. If you and your child are shouting at each other and a wall is going up between you, either send your child for time-out or take time-out yourself. There’s no real communication going on anyway. Announce “I need a break” or tell your child to “sit there until you can talk with me respectfully.” When you have both calmed down, open with an apology, if called for, to break the ice and take down the wall. Then ask to hear your child’s viewpoint again (sometimes having to repeat her case lessens its importance to the child). Present your viewpoint and together arrive at a conclusion. End with a hug. Your child gets the message that disrespect (from both parties) is counterproductive and unwise.