Archived Q&A and Reviews

How to handle back talk without escalating things further?

Sept 2007

How do you handle back talk? When I tell my 4 year old son to do something he doesn't like, I often get back talk, e.g., ''You're a bad guy!'' ''I'm going to shoot you!''. Usually, the task gets done without further escalation (time out, toy removed), but with anger/resistance expressed with unacceptable backtalk. How can I get rid of the back talk without escalating things further? I usually tell him we don't talk like that and it's ok to say you're angry but not to use words to hurt. It doesn't seem to be reducing the backtalk, though. Bad Guy Mommy

I know what you mean! My four and a half year old is like a teenager! I usually try ''engaging'' him (read: tricking him) into getting stuff done by telling him a story or making a game out of tasks - even for mundane things like putting on his jacket (a magic cape!). It doesn't always work, though, and I can't do it all day long or we would never get anywhere. My therapist says to get down to his level, look him in the eye, say ''Mommies are the boss'' and really mean it. I don't think she has kids, though, and in our case it really drives him crazy and escalates the situation. It seems like it's all about control for him, so I try to get him to do things without bossing him around. Sometimes I remind him that I've already asked nicely. We also have a ''no arguing with a teacher'' policy that I am strict about, because while he reserves back- talking for me, I've noticed he's begun to question the authority of other adults. Anyway, I hope you get lots of advice. I'll be reading the posts with interest, too! anon
Just keep doing the same thing you been doing and once he grows out of this phase the backtalk will abate. In the meantime there are only two alternatives. 1. Put up with his backtalk. 2. Spank him, which worked really well with me when I was a kid. However, since I am sure you are abhored by idea number 2, you will simply have to put up with the backtalk for a while. That is just part of his healthy development in seperating himself from you and learning to be an independent person. sean
This may not be the usual recommendation, but I'd try completely ignoring the backtalk. Pretend the child didn't even say it. If the task gets done, great. If it doesn't, use whatever consequence you usually use, because the task didn't get done. This sounds like it might be one of those things kids do because they know it bothers you. If it gets no response at all over several weeks, he might stop. Karen
this is easier said than done, but try the reverse. look for times when he doesnt back talk and then overly praise him, ''hey i really liked how you did what i said when i asked'' so basically positive reinforcement for positive behavior. it is easy for us to focus on the behavior that we dont appreciate and especially as our kids get older we have expectations for them, but i have found that my 4 year old will modify her behavior and respond to my praise more than responding to negative consequences.
Yes, we tell our son the same things when he backtalks. But I think sometimes just sitting there trying to verbally reason with a 4 year old gets you no where but giving them a little power trip. They'll tune you out, or think they can get away with it. So when our giving our son a consequence turns into back talking, I send my 4.5 yr old in for a time out. Sometimes I have to pick him up and put him in his room. We tell him it's unacceptable to talk to his parents that way. I'm talking about a 2 minute time out, and then we talk about it when he comes out. At first it seemed like the timeouts weren't working, but then he got it. The back talk has decreased. And sometimes when he forgets and does back talks or sticks his tounge out, he'll go and put himself in a timeout, knowing he did wrong. Yes, physically putting one's kid a time out sounds harsh, but not being consistent with consequences will only come back to haunt you later. anon
If it's any consolation, I think it's a stage. My daughter went through the same thing as well. It's hard for them to express frustration and sometimes the sympathetic approach (I know you are frustrated, I know you don't want to do this) helps. But do make clear that this is not the way to talk to mommy and have your husband back you up. anon
Have you read the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen? In it, he says that children talk back because they feel powerless and isolated. He recommends reconnecting through play. For example, if a child tries to shoot him, he says he's been shot by a love gun, and he tries to hug the child in a big, clumsy, goofy way. Or if someone calls him a poopy-head, he says you learned my name! but you'd better not call me platypus foot. And when the child calls him platypus foot, or whatever other goofy name you can think of, he fake cries, or says well that's ok, but you'd better not call me clicker-wicker. (Again, whatever funny name you can think of quickly.) He says that children start giggling when you do these things, and then the power struggle is over and connection occurs. I haven't tried these things myself since my baby is only 7 months and not talking yet, but what he says makes sense to me. And the book is a pretty easy read, not too technical. hoping to be a playful mom
We are having the same problem with our 4 yr old. So is every other mom in my parent's group. Look in the archives, it's textbook behavior, which made me feel a lot more calm when dealing with it. When we are not fighting, I tell my child that we have two rules: Be safe and Don't be rude. Using mean words in anger, backtalking and violence all fall under ''Don't be rude''. Our kid gets one warning and/or immediate consequence depending on the situation (which is often being forced to leave--''You are being rude. Rude people don't get to be with us and do ___) We always say, ''You can be mad, but you can't be mean. When you're mad say ___'' Also, if our child uses strong, but appropriate language when mad, I try as far as possible to give them what they want intstead. I can't say that this method has stopped the backtalk, but then I think it is a phase and there is not much I can do about it. But this method has made me feel like I am responding to it in the right way. anon
from what I've seen, 4 yr olds are developmentally compelled to test us. Pick a discipline procedure and/or consequences you can live with and implement it swiftly and consistently every time you don't like what he does. If it keeps happening, in my experience that means the consequences weren't strong enough. It's gotta hurt a little, otherwise it just won't make sense to him to stop that behavior and do what you want. Be clear about what you expect, give one warning, then follow through. good luck