When a child reaches elementary school, he or she is likely to gain a greater sense of independence, which is a good thing overall but can create some new tensions. Empowered kids have a tendency to disagree with parents — or simply ignore them. This sometimes leads a kid to talk back inappropriately, serving up a bit of sass with a side dish of side eye. This is deeply annoying if not infuriating behavior and, yes, a sign of a breakdown in communication. The key for parents is to remain calm, figure out the source of the dysfunction, and empathetically talk it out (ideally, without screaming).
“I don’t think that talking back at that age is inevitable, but depends on a child’s personality and temperament,” says Dr. Shannon W. Bellezza, of Triangle Behavioral and Educational Solutions. “If we view behavior as communication, we have to ask what it is our child is trying to tell us.”
It could be something as simple as trouble at school. School can be overwhelming, and the stress of long school days can manifest in oblique ways. “For many children, the school day is mentally – maybe even physically – exhausting,” explains Bellezza. “Children are expected to do more academically than many are ready for; they’re pushed to or beyond their limits. Holding it together all day at school results in the child falling apart, to some extent, at home. This ‘falling apart’ behavior, which may manifest as backtalk or snide remarks, might be the child communicating to their parents that they are exhausted.”
Exhaustion or stress isn’t the only thing a child may communicate by backtalk. It may be an indication of a child who doesn’t feel sufficiently in control of their own situation, either at school or at home.
“These behaviors may also indicate the child feels a need to exert some control themselves,” suggests Bellezza. “Rolling their eyes is the way they do it. Bonus points if they get a rise out of their parents, because that’s evidence that they are successfully exerting control in their environments.”
Why Kids Talk Back
- They may be exhausted: A surly, sassy kid may have a hard time adjusting to new responsibilities at school. They may need more sleep, more quiet, or more structure.
- They may feel ready for more decisions: if a maturing human consciousness is bristling under the control of adults, let them exercise more decision-making and more responsibility.
- They may be deflecting attention: a kid may find a parent’s ire preferable to a chore or a painful conversation and have learned that earning a rebuke is an effective distraction.
- They may not realize what they are doing: kids who try out behavior they see a classmate use may have never considered the manners of the whole thing. Parents may want to matter-of-factly explain why talking back isn’t appropriate.
It may seem strange for kids to elicit a disciplinary reaction, but think of it this way: If the discipline derails a conversation a child didn’t want to have, they get what they wanted. That doesn’t mean that ignoring backtalk is the right reaction — it’s not — just that getting totally off topic is often the wrong reaction. Tell the kid to button it up and keep on going. Think about what you might do in a work meeting. If you’re successful, do that. If you’ve been fired in the wake of an outburst, don’t.
“In the moment, I think it’s a good idea to calmly let the child know that the behavior is disrespectful when it happens, and also engage the child to try to find out what they are really communicating. Reflective listening – where you repeat back, in your own words, what someone has said to you – is a good tactic,” explains Bellezza. “The parent is providing the child with more acceptable language to communicate their need while giving some control to the child as well. Hopefully, a parent-child dialogue would ensue in which a mutually agreeable solution is reached and during which the child talks more about why they demonstrated the disrespectful behavior.”
A longer term solution is to manage the needs that are driving this behavior. If a child is tired, parents may want to check with the child’s teacher to see if they’re having challenges at school. If the kid is straining against being constantly told what to do, parents can expand their choices in an age-appropriate way or support their nascent work ethic. If a child has severe behaviors at home, parents may want to discuss the issue with their pediatrician. Most children, though, will need their parents to structure their day, help them make good decisions, and keep their cool.