Parents often notice a resurgence of the “terrible twos” when their child enters adolescence, complete with the assertions of independence, the frustration of not having the language needed to express the complexity of their emotions, and the seemingly automatic response of, “No!” or “That’s not fair!” when asked to do anything by parents. Even tantrums seem to rear their ugly heads during the teen years.
It seems as if our current society both reflects and encourages these behaviors, as media often shows sassy teenage stars who get a laugh from their rude remarks aimed at adults, who are often portrayed as unreasonable and/or less intelligent than the teenagers. Parents who are concerned about quashing their teen’s independence, worried about engaging in a power struggle that they might not be able to win, or just feeling helpless in the face of the teen’s strongly expressed emotions, may simply give up when their child refuses to do what is asked of him.
It's important for parents to understand that teenagers do not have the same control of their impulses that adults do, since the part of the brain that helps one think ahead and adjust behavior based on potential consequences (the prefrontal cortex), is still developing. However, even though your teenager’s brain development is still in progress, she still needs to learn how to control impulsive and rude behavior, not only to make life more pleasant for those surrounding her at the time, but also because the experiences that one has during adolescence helps to wire the brain to effectively deal with emotions and impulses throughout life. Parents need to provide support and guidance that will enable such effective responses to eventually become hard-wired in the brain. Part of providing such support and guidance is setting clear boundaries about what kind of behavior will be tolerated, and what consequences exist for engaging in behavior that is not allowed.
Both teenagers and parents need to know that it is developmentally appropriate and healthy to question what is being asked of them, as long as they are not doing it in a rude or offensive manner. We do want to teach our teenager that it's important to stand up for what they believe in, and that some ways of getting what they want are more effective than others, but that sometimes standing up for oneself may include an unpleasant consequence. Here are some ways to deal with teenagers that talk back and show disrespect:
- Make sure that the rules of the house are very clear and specific. You may need to say to your child (at a time when you are both calm), “We have been fighting a lot lately, so we need to sit down and clarify what my/our expectations for your behavior are, and what the consequences will be for breaking the rules.”
- When your child talks back to you or refuses to do something you have asked, take a few seconds to remind yourself to stay calm, and think about what you are about to say. Do not threaten your child or yell at her, as these behaviors can cause the interaction to escalate. Simply state the behavior and remind your child of the consequences. If your child seems to be out of control (or you feel that you are getting out of control), let her know that you will continue the conversation later, and walk away.
- Be confident, firm, and consistent. Do not negotiate with your child, back down, or let her draw your into an argument about the consequence that you are enforcing. Consequences are consequences and shouldn't be up for discussion or argument. If your child feels like she can argue or negotiate a consequence, she'll be more likely to continue an undesired behavior and moreover, more likely to argue even more the next time around. Do not lecture or give long-winded speeches, as your teen will simply tune out, which will in turn make you more likely to get worked up.
- Be willing to have conversations (rather than arguments) about adjusting the rules and consequences every few months as your child gets older and can take on more responsibility. However, make it clear that your teen must be able to present her position to you without being rude - this is an excellent life skill to instill. In addition, all parties involved need to understand that just because your teen may present a good argument in a polite manner, it doesn't mean that you're required to change your position. Be willing to listen with an open mind and be up for a discussion, but in the end, you are the parent with the life experience to make good decisions, as well as the person responsible for your child’s safety and well-being.
- Backtalk sometimes comes from teenagers trying to learn how to assert their independence and test limits, so help them make good choices within the boundaries that you set. As much as possible, let them be responsible for their own behavior, even if it means that they have to deal with the negative consequences (this can often be the best learning experience from them). In addition, give them choices whenever you can, but make it clear when no choice exists and you are not willing to negotiate, especially when it comes to matters of your child’s safety.
- When your child uses rude words to label you or someone else, ask her to be specific. Say, “When you call me…, it is not only rude and will not be tolerated, but it also does not help me understand what you want. Tell me what you are upset about or what you would like to happen.”
- One common refrain from teens is, “You don’t understand!” Do not further frustrate your child by saying, “Yes, I do!”, or “I went through exactly what you are going through now.” We all like to think of experiences as unique. Instead of asserting a "been there, done that" stance, help your child practice communicating without being rude by responding, “I may not understand, but I do want to try to understand what you are feeling. Can we talk about it later when we’re both calmer? Or you can you write it down and send me an e mail, if you like?”
- Think about how you speak to your child and to others around you. How often are you sarcastic or rude? Is your child picking up on your tone and the way you treat others? Try to adjust your own behavior and remember that whether she knows it or not, you are your child's greatest influence in terms of nuturing the right kinds of behavior in her. Consider telling your child that you have noticed that you can be rude to others sometimes, and that you're going to try to modify your own behavior. Sometimes, parents admitting that they too can make mistakes or have things that they need to work on, makes all the difference in terms of communication. Your child will feel less like she's under attack and more open to making adjustments of her own.
- Try to break a pattern of interaction in which your child is constantly rude to you and you in turn respond with frustration and/or punishment. Tell your child that you don't like the way your relationship has been lately, and that you would like to do something pleasant together. Let your child choose something that the two of you can do together, and make a pact that neither of you will be rude or critical. If one of you breaks the pact, end the activity, and try again another day.
- Give your child the same respect that you would like and try to refrain from name-calling or labeling with such words as, “spoiled brat.” Instead, keep the focus on the behavior that you would like to change.
If your child seems to be out of control or defying you in ways that endanger her safety or that of others, seek professional assistance immediately. Ultimately, helping your child break habits of backtalk and disrespect will help her not only in her not only at home, but will make all the difference in her ability relate to others and be successful in life.