“Help! My kid has a smart mouth!” Talk amongst yourselves.

Photo credit: David Salafia via Creative Commons

Backtalk. Sass. Verbal disrespect.

Nothing gets my temper flaring like a smartmouth kid. But I'll hold off on my rant so Denise has a chance to ask for our advice:

My son recently turned 8. Wow. I have seen some disrespect come and go lately with him and it makes me sad and angry. He's very flippant, won't listen and is rude.

After things settled down, I spoke to him and told him how disrespecting ANYONE is not the right thing to do.  I have no clue where this came from (because we had such a good day and then BOOM!). Ugh. Help. Please. Thanks.

I have a lot of experience with this issue. And while I don't think my experience is everyone's experience (that's a central point at Parent Hacks), I think it might help to tell our story…which begins with my story.

My kid and I have very different communication styles.

I was a rule-follower. Deferent to grownups and authority figures. A "well-behaved kid." My parents assumed (as did I) that this was the direct result of their firm parenting and my "goodness."

As I grew up, communication and diplomacy were my best skills. I love to talk, listen, interpret…I basically love understanding people and making myself understood. I'm happiest in a harmonious group of connected people (can you tell why I love blogging?).

Then I grew up and had a kid of my own. As soon as he could express himself, he was saying "no." As a baby it was crying in protest, as a toddler it was NOOOOOO! and, as his vocabulary grew, his pushback got more sophisticated and, to onlookers, more disprespectful. He didn't seem concerned with adult or peer approval; if he had a strong opinion or preference, he'd let everyone know. Loudly.

At first, I felt it was the result of my lax parenting. (Sad to say others assumed that too.) But as he got older, I began to judge him. What kind of kid talks to his parents like that? Doesn't he care about the feelings of those around him?

These questions, which I was ashamed even to admit to myself, were deeply painful. I loved my son so dearly and I couldn't reconcile this behavior with my values of group harmony and parental authority…values I was doing my best to instill in him.

Kids learn communication skills at different rates.

I'll skip to the end of a long story and share what I've observed as he has gotten older: verbal communication, like any other skill, is a multi-level learned behavior, and it goes at different rates for different kids

Some kids understand the facts of a situation long before they understand the feelings. At a very young age my son could logic his way through choices. He's also bold, so arguing that logic was no problem. But it took several more years before his emotional perception and control caught up with his logical and verbal ability. He simply couldn't process the grey areas of verbal (and non-verbal) communication until much later on. And he couldn't control his temper well enough to handle the frustration.

In other words, I don't believe my son was trying to be disrespectful when he pushed back. He didn't even understand that aspect of his communication.

Frame communication in terms of learning, not who a kid is.

At Amazon: The Explosive Child (affiliate link)
At Amazon: The Explosive Child

I'm not saying he was a faultless little angel. I'm also not saying verbal disrespect is acceptable. My point is simply that we made the best headway with his backtalk when we treated it more like a learning delay than a reflection of his "goodness" or lack of caring.

(For more on this, I recommend reading The Explosive Child.)

As much as we could, we'd respond to backtalk and arguing with a firm-but-evenhanded tone. We'd try to walk the line between explaining the situation in neutral terms without overtalking.

We'd point out how his words made others feel while trying our best not to throw them back at him in judgement. We'd offer alternative ways to phrase things.

Later on, we graduated to tone of voice, explaining that the same words said in different tones communicated different things.

None of this stuff was obvious to our son (as it was to me at a very early age). He needed consistent teaching. Sometimes we'd push "pause" on the conversation so we could all calm down before proceeding. This all took a long time.

It was a bumpy road, but I can't tell you how different things are now. My son (now 13) has wonderful manners, is an incredible communicator, and can handle disagreements and disappointments with grace (or, at least, resignation). He still needs coaching on the finer conversational details, but I can now see he was absorbing our teaching for all those years.

There's so much more I could say, but I've already gone on for quite a while. Let me hand over the floor to you, Parenthackers:

How do you handle verbal disrespect in your child? In other children?

Please leave a comment — let's give Denise some support. (Folks are also commenting on the Parent Hacks Facebook page.)

Photo credit: David Salafia via Creative Commons


  1. Erin Nelson says

    Wow, I so needed to read this. THANK YOU! Our 6-year-old daughter sounds very much like your 8-year-old son. And I struggle daily with how best to respond, how to teach, how to model, and how to deal with my own feelings of inadequacy and, frankly, disgust at her behavior. It’s also difficult to turn off the peanut gallery in my mind of people who’d say, “I can’t believe you let her talk to you that way.” Very hard.

    Here’s how we’ve handled it so far, my husband and I. And it’s evolving. When she speaks disrespectfully, we say something like, “I want to know what you have to say, and I’d like you to pause and think of a more polite way to say it.” This is when she’s being plain rude. When she’s clearly upset about something, we make an effort, if we can tell the difference, to first address what’s upsetting her: “It sounds like you’re really frustrated and angry. What’s going on?” Then we move on to, for instance: “I can understand why you’d feel that way, I’d feel that way, too. *Feeling* that way is totally normal and okay. But taking that feeling and throwing it at other people with mean words is not. What could you have said instead, do you think?”

    Now, please don’t take this to mean that every time–or even *any* time, really–we take this approach, everything gets smoothed over and a big lightbulb goes on over her head. We expect this, like most other lessons, will take hundreds of repetitions.

    It’s tempting, sometimes, to give her the same behavior back. To sort of “show her how it feels,” but I never feel good or right after doing this, as satisfying as it is in the moment to, essentially, be a child right along with her. I also don’t think it’s effective–it just makes her feel backed into a corner or mocked, or worse, shamed.

    I’m looking forward to what other folks write.

  2. Erin Nelson says

    Oh, and Asha, I can 100% relate to the “My kid and I have very different communication styles” section. Wow.

  3. Nicole T says

    Our son has “push back” behavior as a result of being a sensitive kid. I found looking at the cause of the individual sass was very helpful in preventing the unacceptable behavior from occurring again. Still trying to get my husband to put this into practice/understand how the kid is feeling/what the kid will do.

  4. SusanOR says

    Erin — I sooooo love your nearly last paragraph about the temptation to give her the same behavior back — and how ineffective it is. Because as you & Asha both alluded, sometimes these behaviors/tone of voice come from our kids BECAUSE they are feeling backed into a corner, mocked, shamed, or misunderstood. Thus, we would be increasing the very behavior we are trying to change!

  5. Nicole T says

    As for other kids, I generally reply with “it is NOT okay to talk to someone else like that” (because it’s not – doesn’t matter that they are a kid and I’m an adult – everyone deserves respect). Then I stop engaging them.

    I had a kid spit in my face and backtalk to me (in my own home), and I told the kid “that is not okay; we do not do that in this house.” And then I firmly but politely repeated that to the parent and asked them to leave my house. Probably the harshest thing I’ve done, but it seemed like the only way to disengage.

  6. says

    What has worked for me is a two-step process. First, I validate what they say, regardless of how they say it. Then I tell them how they make me feel when they talk to me that way. I’m honest, bare-bones honest, and if I feel like crying, I cry, right there in front of them, as I tell them how they make me feel.

  7. Asha Dornfest says

    Oh man, I have so much to say in response to all your comments! I’ll try to keep it brief.

    Erin: I’m totally there with you. I SOOOO appreciate what you said about the need for repetition and that this is not an immediate process. It’s NOT. At all.

    Also: “giving it back” is so very tempting when emotions run high and you’re feeling desperate and humiliated as a parent. Because it’s so humiliating to be spoken to this way by a kid! But you are so right…it teaches nothing, and makes the entire problem worse. That said, we’ve all done it, none of us has 100% zen-like control. We have to be kind to our kids AND ourselves through all of this.

    Susanor: That feeling of being backed into a corner would reliably set my son off every time. One of the biggest problems with this was that we would no longer be focused on HIS behavior, we’d be focused on MINE. Derailed us every time. It took years, but I really did learn how to stop adding fuel to the fire (neutral tone, neutral response) and it eventually helped him see HIS part in the whole thing.

    Stu: I truly believe our kids need to see the emotional results of their behavior. This sort of goes against what I said above about being neutral, and it’s not straightforward. One time my son was pushing particularly sensitive buttons and I started to cry. Sad crying, not shaming “how could you talk to me this way?” crying. He was totally taken aback by my sadness — he had NO IDEA his words would cause me to feel that way. He apologized — not for what he was saying because I still don’t think he made the connection between the two — but he clearly wanted me to feel better.

    Now, he’s so much more plugged into peoples’ emotions. Not only can he understand how people are feeling, he can predict how they might react…something he could not do when he was younger.

  8. Kendra says

    Asha, you make such great points. And I kept thinking about one thing I recently came to understand about parenting, which is that it’s all about skills. I think of all of life as tying your shoes, essentially. If you don’t know how to do something, it’s not because you’re a bad person; it’s because you don’t have those skills. And this can be communication or organization or potty training. So as parents, we don’t have to throw our hands in the air and despair. We can just try harder to impart those skills. That being said, however, I have a “little lawyer” of my own, who is 7 and has lots of trouble with the emotional tone he sets sometimes. He’s very honest, good or bad, and has been known to say things like, “Well, you shouldn’t judge me by my body language!” (We were explaining nonverbal messages that he sends when he crosses his arms or turns his back.) It helps me to think of it as skills I’m helping him to develop, rather than as an area of his personality that is flawed, but it’s still frustrating!

  9. says

    This hit such a sensitive button that I had to wait a while to prepare to read it. My younger son. I let him get under my skin until we’re both operating on defense. When I can step back and stay neutral and calm it goes so much better.

    While I know that lack of sleep/food/exercise can set him off (yes, he is a hamster!) I forget that those things are my weaknesses too and if I’m tired I have less patience to deal with him.

    We have a “do-over” button which sometimes works. If he’s willing to take it, I try to accept the do-over without letting the first words continue to anger me. Often I think he has no idea of how his words sound, so I’m trying to point out tone of voice. Unfortunately, whenever I start to discuss this, even when he’s totally calm later, he turns off his ears and doesn’t want to talk. I think we’re getting through, but the journey is slow.

    So many good points here and in the comments.

  10. Denise Goldstein says

    Thanks everyone, for your comments. Staying calm is what has seemed to have worked for me lately and I’ve noticed that my calmness will reflect on my son’s behavior (in a good way). I have a lot of work to do -those parenting skills ya know- (it’s a work in progress, right) and I feel that many of the parents out there have gone through or are going through this, therefore, I don’t feel so quite alone.

  11. says

    My child is almost 2-years-old, so this topic terrifies me because she is changing so quickly from my innocent baby to a human being who knows what she wants. AH!

  12. says

    Smart mouths are hard to handle. My niece is one. I suspect is she has a lot of insecurities as a middle child and feel that she always has to fight for attention. It also did not help that her other siblings had better grades in school. Reprimanding her in a calm manner seems to work in calming her as well.