Curbing Tween Backtalk

by Loriann Hoff Oberlin

Your 9-year-old’s room looks as if a HAZMAT team will descend upon your home at any moment, yet he yells back at you when you politely remind him of the cleanup involved.

Your 12-year-old thinks you’re so “not cool” that she resorts to put-downs that sometimes send your heart sinking. You’re left wondering just why kids resort to backtalk at this age.

“Pre-teen kids are moving outside the family dominance to peer influence,” says Tim Murphy, PhD, author of The Angry Child (Crown Publishing Group, $14.95). “Multiply this by e-mails, online chats, backtalk-modeling on TV sitcoms, and general peer influence over parents Ñ and that’s why the backtalk takes center stage.”

Dr. Murphy says that generally a mom’s feelings are stung more than a dad’s because many moms respond via emotions and men more through action. Mom may suffer in silence whereas dad stands up to the child. But tolerating disrespect invites more of it.

If you turn off your child’s favorite music because you disapprove of the lyrics and messages, and you hear “you’re so not cool,” Murphy says, follow through with an explanation. Answering your child in anger only sets more verbal volleys into motion.

A good response can be, “I’m sorry, but that [violence, attitude] just goes against what we stand for as a family.” In that way, the outburst be??comes a teachable mo?ment. Don’t worry that your child doesn’t understand your response, but do insist that he respects it. Dr. Murphy suggests these replies to some of the most common preteen refrains:

Your child says: “Whatever” or “Big deal.”
Your reply can be: “You may be upset, but you shouldn’t show disrespect. If you have something to say, say it nicely or keep it to yourself.”

Your child says: You can’t make me.”
Your reply can be: “I can’t make you [clean up your room], but I can refuse to drive you to your friend’s house until you do. The choice is yours.”

Your child says: “Everyone else can.”
Your reply can be: “First, that’s not true. Second, we’re not talking about everyone else, just you. And third, I love you too much to let you do something that won’t be good for you.”

Your child says: “I’m so angryÉI hate you.”
Your reply can be: “It’s sometimes okay to be angry, but never okay to be mean and nasty.”

Your child says: “You never understand.”
Your reply can be: “Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean that I don’t understand.”

Your child says: “You never do what I want.”
Your reply can be: “Sometimes I guess you’re right, so maybe we can take turns deciding certain things like where to eat or what to do as a family.”

Your child says: “You’re so unfair.”
Your reply can be: “Sometimes it seems that way because I don’t agree with you, but I still can’t let you do that. I can try to explain my reasoning, but my rule won’t change.”

After receiving a steady dose of calm, reasoned responses, your child will likely decide that backtalk doesn’t work, at least in your home.

Loriann Hoff Oberlin is a freelance writer.