Discipline Dilemma: "I Can't Stand the Backtalk!"

Stop sass and keep discipline fresh by tweaking old tactics to fit new circumstances.
Nov 06, 2012



It can feel like a real slap in the face when your child speaks to you in a sassy tone. For all you've done for him, it would be nice to get some respect! But responding with your own smart-aleck remark (though satisfying) isn't the best strategy, no matter your child's age. Better: Bite your tongue while you pinpoint what's prompting the impudence.

3 to 5: "You're witnessing the first signs of autonomy," says Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. "She's figured out that she's different from you — and she's letting you know it." At this age, she doesn't know that those cheeky comments aren't so nice; after all, people on TV call each other "stupid" all the time. (Be honest: maybe those words have also slipped from your lips.) Don't overreact, but do let her know that she's hurt your feelings. Keep cool, then move on.

6 to 10: Now, he's talking back to test your rules and reactions. Instead of stooping to his level ("You're a spoiled, selfish brat!"), model respect so he learns how to express his needs and thoughtfully negotiate for what he wants. Call him immediately on offensive behavior: "Telling me to 'chill' in that rude manner is unacceptable." Humor can tickle the funny bone of school-age kids: "Okay, would you like to try saying that another way?" If the provocative behavior continues, ignoring it is the surest route to ending it. "He's trying to get a rise out of you," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of No More Misbehavin'. "If you don't engage, he'll get bored and stop."

11 to 14: Rudeness peaks at this age, and you need a thick skin to resist the temptation to fight fire with fire. That smart mouth she has is exactly that — she's more articulate and aware. And your opinions, once viewed as the absolute truth, are now highly debatable. One way to figure out who she is and what she stands for is to challenge you on just about everything. But at this age, back-talk may also be a cover-up for feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, or fear: perhaps she flunked a math test, had a fight with her best friend, or didn't get a part in the school play. So she takes it out on you. Surrounded by sarcastic, cynical peers, she may simply be treating you the way her friends treat each other.

Instead of dwelling on the insolence, try: "You seem really angry with me lately. I'd like to find out what's bothering you." "Kids this age respond to sincerity," says Borba. What if she's consistently disrespectful? "Flat-out refuse to respond until she changes her attitude," she says. Ground her or take away privileges: no cell phone, no TV, an early curfew, missing an important social event. That will get her attention quickly.

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