When Your Child Talks Back…


Child Talks Back blogographic

* Affiliate link(s) included; all opinions are my own.

Has your child started talking back? First, remember that this is a normal part of growing up, and often indicates that your child is developing mentally and emotionally, learning how to express themselves, and establishing personal limits. Second, help your child learn when and in what ways they are able to express themselves effectively without being disrespectful. Try to identify the cause of their talking back, and then select strategies you think can best respond to your child’s needs.


Nothing happens out of the blue. If your child has started speaking disrespectfully and talking back at you, there’s a reason. Identifying the cause of your child’s behavior is an essential step in determining how to address the situation effectively.

1. Imitation. Little children imitate a lot. It’s how they learn. Even older children, however, imitate people they look up to. Is your child back talking because they are just trying out what they heard someone else say (more common in little children), or because someone they admire regularly talks that way (more common in older children)?

2. Peer pressure. Could you child be talking back to fit in or feel “cool” and grown up? Children often go through a stage, particularly during pre-adolescence and adolescence, where they feel pressured to fit in with a group, and fitting in with some groups involves challenging parental authority in one way or another. If your child talks back at you mainly in front of their peers, this is a likely cause.

3. Growth. Your child might be taking a leap in mental development. They could be developing new skills and discovering new dimensions of their freedom. They might now be understanding situations in a more complete way (and recognizing irony for the first time). Back talk might be the result of a child testing their new skills and how far they are allowed to go with their freedom.

4. Emotion. Your child might be upset at something else. Not knowing how to address their problem or handle their emotions, they might be releasing their stress by taking it out on you.

5. Attention. Could you child be looking for more attention from you? Sometimes a child that craves emotion would rather than negative attention than no attention.

6. Avoidance. Is there something your child might be avoiding? Resisting whatever you’ve asked them to do might really be an attempt to avoid something they’re afraid of or just don’t like.


1. Observe your child. This is necessary to help you find the cause of your child’s behavior. Observe what circumstances give rise to the behavior, and try to identify what your child is trying to avoid, who they are trying to please, or what they are trying to get by talking back. Then help your child find other, more acceptable strategies they can use to meet their objective without being disrespectful.

2. Make sure your child knows your expectations ahead of time. They’re more likely to talk back if something they don’t like takes them by surprise. If they know in advance that it’s coming, they have time to reconcile themselves with it beforehand. It’s even better if you can involve them in the process of developing “family expectations”, which can be perceived more positively than just rules that come from the top down. This helps them feel more included and take more responsibility in holding themselves accountable. In addition, it helps them develop an internal sense of discipline and good judgment. Read about the Win-Win Discipline Model for Parents for more information on the importance of keeping your child as involved as possible in decisions that pertain to them.

3. Set up a contract with your child. If they seem to be talking back regularly, take a piece of paper and assign them to clearly write what they are doing that goes against your expectations, why they need to change their behavior, and two or three strategies they will use to change the bad habit. You might also have them include a clause saying what type of support you will give them, and or what consequences there will be (both if they succeed and if they fail to follow through).

4. Respect your child. No matter how your child speaks to you, continue to speak to them respectfully. This not only models proper behavior, but also shows them that you are convinced of the value of respect and practice the same standards you expect them to practice.

5. Talk to you child about how they feel. Make sure your child understands that you care about their feelings. It’s not wrong for them to have negative feelings, but it is wrong to express them inappropriately and disrespectfully. Model different acceptable ways of expressing the same feelings so you child knows how to express what he’s feeling to you in a respectful way. You might even have your child practice this after talking back, by repeating the same conversation with a different tone.

6. Spend individual time and have quality conversations with your child. Some children, as they grow, don’t share as much of what’s going on inside them or during the school day. Taking time to be with them regularly and getting to know what they’re thinking, feeling and experiencing can help them release tension in an acceptable manner. This can also help you find solutions to their challenges before they get so overwhelming that your child takes their tension out on you by being disrespectful.

7. Give your child positive affirmation. When your child communicates positively and respectfully, acknowledge that you notice the difference and are proud of them for communicating with your maturely.

8. Give your child a set time to communicate their feelings with you. When you need them to accept your decision without discussing it, let them know that you care how they feel and will discuss it later. This doesn’t mean that every decision needs to be explained.

9. Don’t challenge your child in front of others. If you give your child an order or correction in front of their friends, they might feel challenged and are more likely to buck your authority in an attempt to establish their own autonomy before their friends. Ask them to come to a different room so you can speak to them alone, or establish a signal (simple sentence or non verbal sign) that reminds them to be respectful. When you use it with them, they know what it means and you know what it means, but it allows them to respect you without losing face before others.

10. Work on other virtues and values. If a child is “talking back” regularly, it could easily be indicative of something else going on that needs to be addressed. Would developing more patience or respect, for example, help solve some of the underlying issues that cause your child to talk back? If you want great ideas on how to help your child develop virtues, I strongly recommend the book Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers by David Isaacs. In my opinion, the prologue and introduction to this book alone make it worth the read. Isaacs gives an excellent explanation of what virtues should be focused on depending on the age of the child. This is based both on the actual development stage of the child, taking into account their aptitude for developing different skills/values, their natural motivations, and the interrelatedness of the virtues themselves (some naturally build upon others). I personally have found a deeper understanding of what virtues children have an aptitude to develop at different ages to be a game changer – it can help diminish frustration on both sides by setting realistic expectations. In addition, Isaacs stresses the importance of the family as the “first school of virtues”; the bulk of the book then goes on to give a breakdown of each virtue and how to help a child develop it.  Not every piece of advice will apply to every family,  but the general framework Isaacs gives of how to connect in to your child’s natural developmental stage and work with their motivations instead of against them can be very helpful.

11. Give your child other ways to release their feelings. Tell them, “I know you aren’t going to like what I’m going to say. If it upsets you, why don’t you go running for a few minutes to calm down, and then we can finish the discussion”. Giving them a warning both prepares them for what is coming and gives them a real way to handle their emotions without being disrespectful. Even if you don’t recognize in advance that they’re going to be upset, when you see them getting angry and starting to talk back, you can always interject, “I see that you’re getting angry. Why don’t you __________ to calm down, and then we’ll continue.” Running is one idea. You could suggest anything else you know helps your child diffuse their emotions (using a punching bag, drawing, having some alone time, going for a walk in nature, etc.).

In the end, make sure your child knows you’re there for them and want to help them. Growing up is challenging. They need good role models, beginning with their parents. Be firm, but guiding, and they will not only learn how to replace inacceptable behaviors with acceptable ones, but will also mature in their relationship with you as their parents.

11 thoughts on “When Your Child Talks Back…

  1. The beginning of the article is very well put and is quick to get to the point. It’s says, “Nothing happens out of the blue. If your child has started speaking disrespectfully and talking back at you, there’s a reason. Identifying the cause of your child’s behavior is an essential step in determining how to address the situation effectively.” This is sooo true! Sometimes we forget how we can effect the situation with our kids. Stepping back and understanding what and why something is going on can be very helpful.

    And, your first tip is about imitation is an important aspect to keep in mind because parents can be unaware of their influence on their kids. Also, respecting your child is another great point to offer. If parents respect their child there is a very good chance your child will respect you back, at least in most situations.

    Thanks Ellen for the great article!

    – TeenageSons

  2. Oh wow I hate this. As a teenager I know that a lot of these methods do not work at all. Making me repeat the sentence in a more respectful tone drives me up the wall and makes me 10x more upset. However, some of them, like be respectful back are really important. If you don’t treat me like a human being I’m just simply not going to treat you like one, i have no reason to. Also, saying that *both* of you need to take a break and calm down is wise, but never tell them how. If you say “why don’t you calm down by doing ___?” It’s just another thing you’re telling me to do, so now even if I do it, it won’t help because I’m plagued with the thought that you told me to.

    • Hi, Claire! Thanks for your feedback. This article is really geared toward parents of young children. I agree with you that much, if not all of it would not apply to teenagers, or would not work well with teenagers. I would not, in general, suggest making a teenager repeat a sentence to make it sound more respectful, or telling the teenager exactly what to do to calm down. Little children, however, have not yet learned basic skills and techniques that many teenagers already have, so it is important for the parents to actually teach a little child how to say something respectfully (which usually means having them repeat it), and give them very specific things to do in order to teach them techniques to calm down (e.g. breathing exercises, punching bag, running, dancing, etc.). Once a child has already developed such coping skills, they can play a more active role in deciding what they will do to calm themselves down. I hope that makes sense. I think you’re reading the article from a different perspective because you’re in a different age group than the one the article is targeting.

  3. Great article. I’m a grandmother trying to keep abreast of the times and always looking for positive ways in dealing with situations because I realize that there are always better ways to deal with situations. My grandson is 4 years old and he talks back constantly. Sometimes I don’t think he understands when we tell him not to talk back, it seems that he always has to have the last word and he gets sent to the stairs for a time out quite frequently by his frustrated parents and I admit, that I feel exasperated many a time when he talks back with smart Alec type remarks. Any other suggestions in dealing with back talk from a 4 year old? He has a younger brother 2 years old that we don’t want him imitating his older brother with the back talk. Please help! loving grandmother.
    P.s. I live with my daughter’s family.

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  6. Dear Ellen, it would be great if you would either respond to Barbara’s post above or write an another piece specifically dealing with this issue in very young children. I’m looking for guidance on working with my very verbal just-turned three year old who sounds a lot like Barbara’s grandson. Her pre school have done a great job of helping her to be confident in speaking up when she doesn’t want to join in an activity or telling other kids what she want to do, but it seems this has spilled into how she responds when we need to address her behaviour. When we tell her not to do something she goes into question mode – “What did you say? Why did you say that to me? Please don’t say that. that isn’t very nice” etc. We’re trying to stay calm, and do explain why we’re enforcing rules but the questions can go on and on for ages and she becomes angry often. She also doesn’t sense that, from our point of view, the conversation gets to a point of being over because we’re going round in circles. It seems to me she keeps asking because she hasn’t got a satisfactory answer but I don’t know how to give that to her- I explain in different ways but it doesn’t seem to work. I want to communicate clearly with her, satisfy her questions and help her to understand the boundaries of politeness without resorting to shouting or shutting her down. Any ideas? Thanks!

    • Hi, Theresa! I haven’t had a ton of time for the blog lately, but I hope to be able to spend more on it again soon. Let me think about your comment for a little while and then see if I can write something about it. I think what you’re referring to is something a lot of toddler/young children go through… Thanks to both you and Barbara for bringing it up!

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