What to Know About Responding to Back Talk From a Child

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 02, 2022
5 min read

We love our kids, but they know exactly how to press our buttons. Back talk and sass can be frustrating and hard to manage. How you handle it can play a big role in how your child understands boundaries, respect, and consequences.

Back talking is a term used to describe when your child responds to you with rudeness or sass. You may have also heard it referred to as being “mouthy” or a “smart aleck.”

Back talk is usually the result of your child being argumentative. Some back talk examples that you may have heard include phrases like:

  • “I hate you.”
  • “It’s all your fault.”
  • “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Back talk can be triggering for parents because it implies ungratefulness and disrespect. As a result, some parents' knee-jerk reaction may be to yell or hand down a harsh punishment.

While it’s important to teach your child that back talk isn’t OK, back talk is also a normal part of a child’s development. Children use back talk as a way to test their limits and the rules, which then helps them understand what those limits and rules are. Back talk is also a sign that your child is beginning to form their own identity and personality.

There are several steps you can take to help curb kids talking back. The best options for you depend on your child’s personality, their age, and the situation.

Find the cause of the back talk. Children may resort to back talk for a number of reasons. Often, kids don’t quite have the communication skills to convey what they’re feeling, and this can lead to them lashing out in frustration.

Many times when a child acts out, it’s because they have unmet physical or emotional needs. Sometimes your child may not even realize this, especially if they are neurodivergent. Back talk, tantrums, and meltdowns can be the result of: 

  • Being tired. Our emotional maturity can plummet when we’re tired. Communicating effectively is more difficult for an exhausted kid. 
  • Hunger or thirst. There’s a reason “hangry” is a common term. Even adults get cranky when they’re hungry! 
  • Lack of control. As kids develop their independence, they need to feel some control over their surroundings. This doesn’t mean you let them make all the decisions, but giving them options like “Do you want to wear this pair of shoes or this one?” can help them feel like they have some control.
  • Needing attention. Sometimes we forget how much our children need our attention. Taking time to play a game with them or do something together can help fill that need.
  • Overstimulation. Children don’t always realize when they’re reaching their threshold for overstimulation. Sometimes taking a break or removing your child from the situation can help them calm down.
  • Understimulation. A child who is understimulated may end up acting out. Helping them find something to occupy their mind, like a game or arts and crafts, can help keep them from acting up because they’re bored.

Communication. If backtalk is unusual for your child, and it’s not immediately clear what the problem may be, try opening up communication with helpful language. Try phrases like:

  • “I see you’re upset. Please find a way to tell me so I’ll want to listen.” 
  • “Is everything OK? You don’t normally act like this.”
  • “Hey, do you need a hug?”

By taking the time to effectively communicate with your child, you’re offering them empathy and a safe space to show their struggles. Maybe they had a tough day at school, or maybe a friend was mean to them and they are struggling emotionally.

Define the behavior and set boundaries. Regardless of why your child is lashing out and talking back, it’s important to clarify what about their words upset you and define clear boundaries for moving forward.

Saying “That was rude” or “That was sassy” is too vague and can escalate the situation. Instead, point out what bothered you and even explain how it made you feel. For example:

  • “When you say mean things, that’s talking back.”
  • “When you call me names, it makes me want to walk away.”

After you define the behavior, it’s time to define boundaries. Kids in certain stages of development are more likely to push boundaries, and it’s important to define these boundaries and hold firm to them. For example:

  • “I treat you with respect; I expect the same in return. You may not call me names.”
  • “If you want to discuss issues, not attack me, I’ll talk. Let me know when you’re ready.”

Establish that you’re there for them and willing to listen, so long as they can calm down and speak respectfully. Be sure to follow through on your word. If you say that you’ll send them to their room to calm down, do so if the behavior continues. Your kids will notice when your threats are empty.

Model kind behavior. Children are expert imitators, and they’re always watching. When you speak to them, use the same self-control you want them to use. After all, how can you expect them to maintain self-control if you can’t do it yourself?

Sometimes, maintaining control in these situations is hard. It’s fine to say, “The way you’re talking to me is hurtful. I’m going to take a break for a few minutes to calm down, then we can try this again, OK?”

Praise good behavior. Positive reinforcement is a great way to help your child learn and reinforces respectful dialogue. For younger kids, this might look like “Thank you for asking so nicely.” For older kids, this could be something like, “I really appreciate the way you talked to me about your curfew. I know we don’t agree, but I’ll think about what you said. I’m really impressed with how respectful you were.”

Kids are still learning. They’ll forget, they’ll struggle to control their emotions, and they’ll continue to push boundaries. When necessary, put firm, appropriate consequences in place.

Offer a warning. For younger kids especially, give them a warning before handing out punishment. “I don’t appreciate you talking to me that way. If it happens again, you’ll need to go to your room to calm down.”

Make the punishment appropriate. When choosing a punishment, find something that is age-appropriate and appropriate for the back talk. The punishment should be something you’re comfortable following through on. “If you continue talking to me like this, I’m going to cancel the family trip to Disney World.” Would you really do that? 

Instead, something like, “If you continue talking to me like this, you won’t be able to use the Xbox for the rest of the night,” or, “If you continue to call me names, you can’t go to the movies with your friends this weekend,” is more appropriate.

If possible, try to relate the consequence to the action: “If you continue to throw a fit about leaving the park, we won’t be able to come back tomorrow.” Natural consequences aren’t always possible, but they can be the most effective.