What do you do when your child “talks back”?

Kid Feeling MisunderstoodQ. My 8 year old son is constantly talking back to me and using vulgar language. I tell him that is not acceptable, and he keeps doing it. He argues and doesn’t listen to authority—my authority anyway. He’s fine at school. Teachers love him. When I was young, I would have been smacked if I said half of what he does. I’m at a loss. What do I do to stop this constant talking back and throwing crude words at me?

A. I, like you, was brought up to respect my elders—at any cost. I wasn’t allowed to say what I wanted, what I thought about anything, or express my opinion. Only adults had opinions. Having an opinion was never encouraged, never asked for, never listened to. If one came out, it was ignored or highly criticized as talking back. Life was about doing what grown-ups told you to do. Children were second-class citizens. Fortunately (I guess) my temperament kept me from ever expressing anger at my parents for keeping me quiet. I just simply stayed quiet. But my brother did not. He fought back, he ran away, he got in trouble.

I spent years in therapy finding my voice, and my brother spent years in a home for emotionally disturbed children. Authoritarian parenting (the “because I said” so model) may look like it works on the outside. Children may be “well-behaved”. I certainly was. But most grow into adulthood with some degree of unhappiness or emptiness inside that leads to depression or addiction to fill that emptiness. And I can guarantee you that none of them have ever reached their true potential and found satisfaction in life.

The messages to the children from being shut down turn into beliefs: I’m not good enough, I can’t get it right, I’m invisible, I don’t have a right to my opinions, which live on and pass on in some way to the next generation—as it has been passed on from many generations before.

These children live their adult lives struggling with inner voices and self-evaluations. What do they sound like? Whose voice rings true when you don’t get a job you hoped for? Whose words do you hear in your head when you feel rejected by a partner? What do you think when your child screams, “You can’t make me. I hate you,” or “I wish I were dead!”

Upset ChildHow a parent talks to their child becomes how that child talks to themselves.

Parenting is gradually changing. More and more parents want their children to have their own voices and not be brought up the way they were. But today’s parents who were brought up by authoritarian parents have that model engrained in their psyches. And their lack of confidence in themselves from that upbringing means they allow themselves to be bowled over by the loud voices of their children, to take their words literally and personally without the confidence to stand in their own dignity, to listen and respond effectively. Instead they try everything in their arsenal to stop those voices.

From You can’t talk to me like that to Those are not nice words. We don’t use them in this house to walking away in overwhelm and powerlessness, parents are ineffective at getting the respectful results they want.

Just as every monumental change in history has been brought about by protest and rebellion, so too are our children fighting for the right to basic human dignity—which, to be honest, has not been seen as a child’s right until very recently. Authoritarian parenting is disrespectful, unfair, and irresponsible—as is permissive parenting. Many kids today are seeing their way through it and raising their voices. But their voices are immature. They yell and use powerful words when they feel unfairly treated. When that behavior provokes angry, forceful reactions from parents, the children’s voices have to get louder.

Talking face to faceIt’s a mindset shift, but when you hear words that trigger feelings of disrespect in you, I encourage you stop yourself from reacting and think instead, What unfairness is being triggered in my son? What just happened that caused him to feel disrespected? Could he be feeling powerless, misunderstood, humiliated, belittled? How can I connect with him instead of disconnecting further? What can I do to let him know I am ready to listen? You don’t have to agree with what he is claiming, but you do need to look beneath the surface and see what emotions are provoking the words you hate.

For many, this shift is dramatic and feels scary. I completely understand you feeling confused and annoyed by your son’s actions. They feel disrespectful and irresponsible. I would invite you to see his pushback as an opportunity to engage with him. Instead of criticizing him for pushing back, have the courage to say that you can feel his anger and ask him if he would please tell you what he’s angry about. Then you must be willing to listen.

If he says, You never let me do anything I want, instead of retorting with what he just had the privilege of doing yesterday, resist the reasoning and listen to the feelings he is exposing. Answer him with, “It must be hard to think you never get to do what you want. It’s hard being a kid who is told by so many people what to do all the time.”

You can certainly ask him to use a different tone and language, but once he feels heard and understood, his tone and language will change by itself.

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