Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and growing your child’s/teen’s skills to communicate respectfully provides a perfect opportunity.
Conflict happens in families between spouses, among siblings, and between parents and children/teens. Fighting in family life is normal and expected. “Back talk” can be defined as “argumentative replies.”1Children/teens respond in anger, hurt, or frustration in hurtful tones or with hurtful words. But “back talk” also represents a power imbalance children/teens are trying to rectify. Power, after all, is a basic human need. Children/teens ages 11-14 are building their skills in listening, empathy, assertive communication, and problem solving. Building your child’s/teen’s skills to respond in assertive but non-aggressive ways is essential to their success.
Yet, we all face challenges with back talk. “You can’t tell me what to do!” your child/teen may exclaim in anger and frustration when you say “no” to an unsupervised party. Your child’s/teen’s responses can press on your rawest nerves angering and upsetting you. As your child/teen develops, they will need to test their limits and the rules in order to internalize them. This can lead to power struggles between parents and their children/teens. They will also have evolving emotional needs and at times, lack the communication skills necessary to ask for what they need. Using the steps below can help navigate this struggle with skill. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Why Back Talk?
When parents were surveyed, “back talk” rose to the top of the parenting challenges list. Whether it’s your eleven-year-old screaming “I hate you!” or your fourteen-year-old crying “It’s all your fault” when they had a fight with a friend, establishing healthy ways of responding to life’s most challenging moments in ways that do no harm to self or others is a vital skill your child/teen needs to thrive.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to respond to upset or disagreements in healthy ways can create:
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, managing conflict in your child/teen:
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
Five Steps for Promoting Healthy Communication During Heated Moments
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen communicate during your toughest, most emotional moments in ways that do not harm. It also builds important critical life skills. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about healthy ways to communicate by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when confronting challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life; and
- will grow self-control, empathy, assertive communication, and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child/teen in their ability to communicate in healthy ways. For example, if your child/teen is hurt or feeling rejected, is their normal reflex to lash out in self-protection? Begin by considering the following:
- Ask about how your child/teen feels when arguing with a family member or friend.
- “What are some situations that get you mad or really upset?”
- “Apart from anger, what else do you feel in these situations?”(Name the multiple feelings that occur.)
- “What do you notice about what’s going on in your body?” (Name the ways that your child/teen physically experiences being upset whether it’s a red hot face or a racing heartbeat.)
- “What are some common ways you respond when you are upset or mad? What do you think the impact has been on other people when you respond that way?”
- “What is the difference between intention and impact?”
- “What are some ways you can respond when you are upset or mad that don’t have a negative impact on others?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that children/teens are learning how to be in healthy relationships and that includes learning how to fight fairly. Because of your child’s/teen’s learning and development, they will make mistakes and poor choices. How you, as a parent, handle those moments can determine how you help build their conflict management skills. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child/teen is going through. Here are some examples:
- Eleven-year-olds may push boundaries and argue with you as they assert their independence. They may argue with friends as they worry more about being liked.
- Twelve-year-olds may be edgy and moody or anger easily as they deal with increased stress from school, friends, and the perceived pressure of acting older.
- Thirteen-year-olds can be highly sensitive as they work to define their independent identity while still being dependent. They may feel an even greater sense of peer pressure.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act like they are invincible and like they know it “all.” They may get angry if they are embarrassed or rejected in front of peers and particularly in front of crushes.
- Fifteen-year-olds may feel sensitive to criticism and preoccupied with peer impressions. Conflict may arise if teens fear failure in front of you, their teacher, or their peers.
- Sixteen-year-olds may feel more confident. They may have new goals outside of school, and along with them, stress and worries. They might be tempted to stay up late studying or socializing, but that lack of sleep challenges their self-control and ability to manage anger and anxiety in healthy ways.
- Seventeen-year-olds may become highly focused on their academic and life goals and the stress of adult choices ahead. Conflicts may arise with you as they assert independence but also feel fragile, vulnerable, and scared of their future adult lives.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are considered emerging adults. At times, they may exude confidence, while other times they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. Conflict may arise as you renegotiate your relationship.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive words and tone of voice you want your child/teen to use, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Reflect on how you currently model communication when you’re upset.
- Any actions, words, or tones of voice you use with your child/teen will be repeated and mimicked back to you by them. If you yell, your child/teen will yell. If you criticize, your child/teen will criticize. So consider how you react to your child/teen when you are upset. Ask yourself, “If my child/teen repeats back to me what I say when I am angry and in my tone of voice, will it be acceptable to me at home? In public?” Consider which words, actions and tones you want to see in your child/teen and which you do not. Next, decide what words, actions, and tones you do not want to use so you are only modeling what you want to see and hear.
- From research, the following are fighting habits that hurt others and destroy trust in one another.2 In fact, these will encourage more “back talk” from your child/teen. In forging healthy communications with your family members including with your child/teen, these should not be used.
- Do not use physical force. Using physical force in a conflict (including spanking) signals that the individual has lost control and only believes they can regain it with physical dominance. This is harmful and breaks trust.
- Do not talk about family members negatively when they are not present. Going directly to the person with whom you have the problem is the healthiest way to address a problem. When you go to one family member to complain about another, you are harming both family relationships.
- Do not criticize. Judging or commenting on the character of a person in the struggle hurts the other. Instead, focus your energies and words on solving the problem at hand.
- Do not show contempt. Using hostile humor, sarcasm, name calling, mockery, or baiting body language harms the other person. These all involve some kind of aggression or character attack with the implicit intention of causing harm.
- Do not become defensive or blaming. Pointing fingers and using “You…” language is blaming. Words like “always,” “never,” or “forever” cannot represent the truth and break down trust. Own your feelings and role in the situation, and the argument will remain constructive.
- Do not stonewall. Actively refusing to listen, shutting down the argument, or giving the silent treatment harms the other person and breaks down trust.
- Learn to use “I-statements.” At a family dinner, talk about how it challenges adults and children/teens alike when arguments occur. You want to communicate in ways that do not harm one another. Share an example of an argument you’ve had and how each person responded without judging what they did. Now try an I-statement using that same issue. Here’s the structure: “I feel ________________ (insert feeling word) when you __________(name the words/actions that upset you) because ___________________.” This structure helps the individual take responsibility for their own feelings and role in the problem while avoiding “you” blaming language. Try it out in a parent-teen argument: “I feel frustrated when you keep playing and I’ve told you it’s homework time, because I feel ignored.” This is a tool that can feel empowering to a child/teen so that they regain their personal power without harming you or another.
If your child/teen struggles to give you a feeling word, then offer them options and ask which ones fit their true emotions. This helps expand their emotional vocabulary.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Assert Needs, and Argue in Healthy Ways
Your daily disagreements can be opportunities for your child/teen to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child/teen works hard to manage feelings, words, and choices constructively.
Practice also provides important opportunities to develop consequential thinking or the ability to think ahead to the impact of a particular choice and evaluate whether it’s a positive choice based on those reflections.
- Allow your child/teen the chance to assert their needs in small and bigger ways like ordering for themselves in a restaurant or encouraging them to discuss a grade or problem with their teacher.
- Be sure and consider how you can create the conditions to support their success (like offering coaching or guided open-ended questions to prompt thinking) so that your child/teen learns to become their own best problem solver.
- Share a range of feeling words regularly to become more comfortable with expressing feelings.
- Practice “I-statements” on more challenging problems and with a range of issues including friendship conflicts. Then, when in a heated moment, gently remind them, “What might an I-statement sound like right now.”
- Practice deep breathing to help calm down when you have spare moments together like while waiting in line, driving in the car, and at bedtime.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen how to meet their challenges with skill and persistence, and you are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to do those new tasks well and independently. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, following through on logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful, teaching cause and effect thinking (as they address problems and conflicts), and helping them grow skills in taking responsibility.
- Initially, your child/teen may need active support to be able to pause in the moment. Use “Let’s both pause for a moment so our brains can catch up with our emotions.”
- Make some agreements and be clear about your expectations. “I want to make sure we both are clear about how we are agreeing to have this conversation. We are both committing to… and to not…”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” and “I appreciate…” statements like, “I noticed how you listened to what I had to say without interrupting – I so appreciate that!”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child/teen is frustrated or feeling irritable, proactively remind your child/teen of their strength. You can say, “I know it doesn’t feel like this right now, but I so appreciate how you rise to the occasion even when it is hard.”
- Actively reflect on how your child/teen is feeling when approaching challenges. You can ask questions like “I can tell you are still hurt about what happened with your friend. What do you think you might do?” Be sure to reflect on outcomes of possible choices.
- Apply logical consequences when a poor choice is made that has caused harm. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Don’t move on or nag. Children/Teens often need more time to deal with their feelings and approach someone with whom they are upset. Be sure to wait long enough for your child/teen to show you they can address their problems on their own with your support. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to work through their problems.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, your attention is still your child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished in family life. But if your child/teen is working hard to handle arguments constructively, it will be worth your while to recognize it. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to their motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child/teen does not back talk or stays respectful, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I noticed you paused before responding. Great work staying in control!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child/teen makes up for a poor choice by apologizing sincerely to a friend, recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children/teens. When you remove the extra-screen time or money, for example, have they internalized the skills and the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Be specific. “Good job” seems not to carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You talked with your brother until you both could agree; love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “You didn’t argue at all” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say “You were arguing in the car, you both calmed down, and then, you talked it through.”
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Back Talk. Ages 11-19. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.