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For kids, back talk is often a developmentally normal method of asserting independence from parents. We asked the experts on child discipline in Nassau County, Long Island, how parents can discourage this bad behavior.
"You just don't understand."
"It's NOT fair!" (Pout.)
(Sneer.) "What's the big deal?"
If you've got a child in your home older than, well, one, you've heard it, too: Back talk, persistent and strong, is a standard rite of passage. And depending upon a child's age, it's often characteristic of a developmental milestone - it signifies a child trying to exercise more control over his or her own life, and to designate clear boundaries, assert independence.
But not matter how many times you read about the "why's" for the bad behavior, you surely still need help with how to handle it. As Marina Doulova, a Queens psychiatrist, indicates, "If this is a new behavior, it is essential to determine the triggers for these behavioral changes." That will often inform how to deal with the behavior.
For some general direction, we asked local experts to answer:
What advice or words of wisdom can you offer a parent who is dealing with a child who back talks?
"Most people think of teenagers when they hear about the problem of children talking back. However, it often shows up in children at much earlier ages and should be dealt with firmly rather than ignored - use it as a teachable moment. Most children resent having limits placed on them and will naturally test those limits or respond defiantly when disciplined. Parents are their child's first and most important teacher, so it is important to show that it is unacceptable to talk disrespectfully. If ignored then the message might be that you approve of this behavior.
Since children learn by watching how parents behave it is essential to demonstrate the behavior you want to teach your child, especially in highly emotional situations. What you do and say and how you act when your authority is challenged or your decisions impolitely questioned demonstrates to a child how to handle angry emotions. If a young child is talking back, it may be because he is feeling frustrated and needs help learning how to express himself appropriately. Offer suggestions or ask your child to brainstorm with you alternative ways of talking. Be sure to acknowledge when he follows through on the alternative suggestions the next time. Giving this positive attention reinforces what he is doing right.
It is likely to take many repetitions and reminders for the new behavior to be learned, so lots of patience is necessary. It is difficult for young children to control or manage strong feelings. So-called emotional regulation is one of the key developmental steps typically learned in the early years. It is important to validate your children's feelings, which are neither right nor wrong. It is how they act on those feelings that count. Parents set the example, so aim to be a calm, neutral role model in your own behavior."
- Karen Horowitz, parenting resource network director, Friedberg JCC, Oceanside
"At Bright Horizons we strive to empower children to be analytical, to be self-expressive, to speak their mind. The difficult part of creating such a democratic environment is when these curious infant and toddler faces turn on us by saying 'no,' or preschoolers back talk. I am a mother of a strong-minded seven-year-old, and back talk is a common behavior that is redirected in our home. While there are different approaches for different ages, the goal is to attain one thing from children, and that is carrying themselves appropriately and treating others in a respectful manner.
When a child talks back we offer alternative words on how to express her thoughts when contradicting what an authority figure is asking of them. We focus on positive communication techniques to gain children's cooperation. Use reasoning and 'I messages' to help children understand why we expect certain behaviors from them and to set the stage for constructive problem-solving. Describe the unacceptable behavior, state your feeling, and state the consequence. For example: 'When I ask you to help me clean up and I hear you say, "I don't want to," I feel very sad because I feel that you are not using nice words with me or helping me take care of the toys.'
Modeling is key. Children model the behaviors of adults around them. The next time you hear your child talk back, pay attention to his body language, tone, and the vocabulary used. Look familiar? Many times children are imitating how we speak to other adults around us. The best redirection is to model appropriate ways for children to express themselves when they are discontent, starting by the way we express our feelings of discontent when they are talking back.
Oh, and for those fun curse words they pick up on: 'Those are our bathroom words. You can go in there and say them, but not in front of other people.'"
- Ingrid Gutierrez, center director, Bright Horizons, Woodbury
"There are many responses that are successful in working with a child who is fresh or verbally disobedient, and the various approaches depend on the child's age. For a child under five, a simple 'that is not acceptable,' or 'I do not hear you until you can speak respectfully' can work wonders. The less you engage the child, especially regarding curse words, the less likely you will escalate the negative interaction. At a more quiet time, you might engage a conversation and discuss options and consequences. If this is already the second time, you move into the consequence phase, without lecturing. That comes at a more peaceful time.
Although at times children's antics and misbehavior can truly be humorous or catch us by surprise, causing us to laugh in embarrassment or to lighten the mood, it is never okay to laugh at the time of the incident. This is because it undermines the sense of self your child has. Instead of minimizing their feelings or behavior by laughing, parents should validate their feelings - are they angry, upset, sad? - when they are ready to talk. We must always allow for that readiness.
And remember: Your child, though a child, has the same feelings, hurts, worries, and confusions that we all have...even though we think their problems are smaller."
- Doris M. Aptekar, Ph.D., LMHC, psychotherapist, school psychologist, certified teacher, serving Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens
"What do you do if your three-year-old tells you 'No!' or simply runs from you when you ask them to come to you, which is a physical expression of 'No'? How about changing the way we talk with our children? I suggest that parents need to change their approach. It is the job of the youngster to try to push boundaries, to gain control - and it is the job of the parents to try to always keep this thought in the forefront of their interactions with the child. Or, to say it more simply: When your children act out, they are actually doing their job! Now we as parents need to do our jobs and be parents, by acting as parents. How? Good Question! I think if we lead with kindness, we as parents/human beings can make it a lot further in the happiness realm. So the next time your child - whether a toddler or a teen or even your forty-something adult child - talks back or is just being downright rude to you, how about trying to put yourself in their shoes at that moment? Let's say the three-year-old says 'No!' - how about giving her positive choices? If the child is older and he has a point, discuss it with him. If he is uncontrollable or just trying to hurt you, I suggest saying something like, 'I love you too much to argue with you. You have really hurt my feelings. When I am calm I will talk with you about this.' Then you should walk away. This will give you enough time to collect your thoughts and figure out if the child needs to receive an appropriate disciplinary action, and what that should be."
- Rebecca Kammerer, cofounder of Parent Sense, Inc., classes held throughout Nassau County
Also see: Our complete list of expert advice on how to deal with a back talker
More advice on practical parenting issues in our Ask the Experts section
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