5 Ways to Curb Back Talk

Mighty Mommy has five surefire ways to curb back talk from your kids.

Cheryl Butler
5-minute read
Episode #400

how to curb back talkOne of the most challenging aspects of parenthood is dealing with a fresh child who engages in back talk.  A typical scenario might be that you’re getting ready to leave the park to head home for dinner and your 8-year old spews forth a zinger like, “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll tell you when I feel like going home, got it?” Excuse Me!  Whether this scenario hits home or you’re shaking your head right now thinking your darling angel would never give you lip, unfortunately, it's more common than you think. 

Back talk and the power struggles that follow are common, but that doesn’t make them any less draining and frustrating for you—especially if your child mouths off to you in public.

"The reasons for back talk are as varied as the personalities of the children who use it," writes Jim Bozigar, head of community outreach at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, who runs a back-talk workshop for parents, on familyeducation.com. "The child could be hungry, tired, or in a transitional period. But children who talk back usually do have one thing in common: They're trying to separate from their parents and exercise control over their lives."

"When a child talks back, what he's really expressing is anger, frustration, fear, or hurt," writes Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, on babycenter.com. "Talking back guarantees your attention, and some attention is better than none."

Don’t lose your cool and end up in a shouting match when you are up against a child who engages in foul back talk, there are better ways to handle the situation.  Mighty Mommy has 5 surefire ways to curb back talk and elicit sweeter nothings instead.

Tip #1:  Never Assume the Reason Behind a Child's Bad Behavior

Your child’s defiant behavior is actually the symptom of the actual problem. Don’t guess or assume that your child is delivering nasty zingers and back talk based on what you see. If your son is belligerent towards you when he returns from school, it might not be that he hates algebra and is taking it out on you. Maybe he’s finding it hard to make friends and is feeling like an outcast. That doesn’t excuse his poor behavior, but when he’s in the comfort of his own home, he can let his guard down and therefore targets his frustration toward those closest to him—usually his parents and siblings.

Try tracking your child’s behavior for a short period of time and notice what situations or feelings seem to trigger the aggression or defiant outbursts. If you notice a pattern where he’s unloading his anger every day after school, once he calms down later that evening, ask him if you can talk about what you’ve noticed. “Hey, it’s pretty obvious that when you get home from school, you’re miserable, and you’re taking it out on Dad and me. What's up? How can we help you?” He may completely ignore your attempt, but if you start from a place of trying to understand what’s going on, you’re letting him know that you care and that you want to help him—rather than just casting blame.

Tip #2:  Set House Rules and Enforce Consequences

Set very clear rules for your house, and set up very clear consequences for any child who chooses to test them, including sassing off with back talk. You don’t have to be overly harsh or strict, you simply need to stick with the limits you put in place.

Quick and Dirty Tips' Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, recommended the following strategy in How to Effectively Impose Consequences for Bad Behavior:

Set a consequence and an incentive he actually cares about. A note about punishment: there is increasing evidence that punishment doesn’t work and instead either pushes the bad behavior underground or leads to worse behavior.  


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.