Here’s how to emerge from this stage of parenting with your nerves intact
When kids hit the older elementary and tween years, they’ve usually mastered some of the skills you dreamed about when they were toddlers: dressing themselves, picking up their gear, and making their own lunches. Yay, you’ve got this parenting thing down! And that’s when it starts—the talking back. You know, the mumbling under the breath or the angry swearing. Whatever it may be, as parents, it’s our job to deal with the sassy attitude in an effective and understandable way. It’s easy to opt for “because I said so” or “you’re being ridiculous” when you don’t feel like explaining yourself, but that’s not going to help your case. If anything, it might make it worse.
With that in mind, we asked therapists to offer their thoughts on how parents should deal with kids talking back. In hopes of making sure everyone emerges from this stage of parenting with their nerves intact, here are six phrases to avoid using with a kid who backtalks (and what to say instead).
1. “Because I said so..”
We’ve all heard this before, even from our own parents at one point or another. Sometimes it’s easier to use this phrase because it puts a dead end in the conversation. However, it doesn’t provide any reason or clarification for the answer you just provided.
“This approach completely disregards and invalidates your teens’ feelings about the situation which will only escalate their frustrations more. Giving them a reason for why you are saying no and then also opening the door for further communication about the issue will give your child the opportunity to feel heard and to express their feelings,” says Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S, a therapist at LifeStance Health.
Let’s say, for example, you don’t want your teen to go out with a group of friends who might not be a positive influence. Instead of saying “Because I said so” you may want to say something along the lines of “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with you going out with this group of friends. Can we talk about it?”
2. “You can’t talk to me like that.”
This might be a knee-jerk response when your kiddo comes at you with a sassy attitude or starts talking back, but you want to try your best to avoid saying this. “When you acknowledge your teen’s frustration or anger, they will feel heard and, hopefully, this will help to notch down the intensity of their emotion. It’s also important to set a boundary with them so they are clear that the expectation is that they approach you in a respectful manner. Don’t forget that when you show them respect, they’ll reflect it back to you,” says Leanza.
For example, instead of saying, “You can’t talk to me like that” try to say something like “I can see that you are angry, but I need you to talk to me in a respectful way.”
3. “You’re being ridiculous.”
Just because your child is saying something that seems trivial to you, it’s important to remember that their current experience and feelings are very real to them. “This response can make a child feel ashamed or embarrassed for expressing their emotions, so it is crucial that they receive validation even if their behaviors don’t agree with yours,” says Carly Kaufman, MPH, M.Ed, board-certified functional medicine health coach and co-founder of GRYT. Instead, try understanding their perspectives and find solutions together.
A more helpful alternative would be to say something like, “Let’s talk about ways we can work together to find a solution.” According to Kaufman, this response shows your willingness to listen and collaborate toward finding a solution while still setting boundaries and expectations.
4. “You are my child.”
This is one of the last things a kid or tween wants to hear when they are frustrated with their parents. “Responding with ‘I am your parent, you are my child’ can create an unhealthy power dynamic between parent and child that leads to them feeling powerless. Instead of adopting such an approach, try explaining your reasoning while acknowledging their perspective as much as possible,” says Kaufman.
A more helpful statement to try might include, “I understand your viewpoint but this issue cannot be discussed further.” Kaufman says this phrase acknowledges your child’s thoughts while maintaining boundaries and expectations between you both.
5. “You’re too young to understand.”
Reena B. Patel, a positive psychologist, and licensed educational board-certified behavior analyst, says that this statement can come across as dismissive and condescending to children with a sassy attitude or sassy teenagers, dissuading them from further interactions with you in future discussions.
A more helpful statement would be more along the lines of “What would be an equitable solution to this situation?” “This statement helps children solve problems while taking responsibility for their actions while encouraging cooperation and compromise,” says Patel.
As an adult, you have the tools to communicate more effectively than saying “whatever.” “Respond to the emotion, not the verbal content. Responding to the anger and frustration behind the words addresses the core feeling and will help you to calm yourself down before you respond,” says Jeanette Lorandini, LCSW and founder of Suffolk DBT.
A more helpful response would be, “I hear that you’re angry. I’m here for you and will always love you. When you’re ready, let’s talk about what’s upsetting you.” According to Lorandini, this shows them you are in control of your emotions, you are a safe space, and you are there to listen when they calm down.