If you find your child habitually makes negative remarks, confront the problem head-on, advises Dr. Goldenthal. But avoid saying something like "Why are you always making those negative comments?" Your child is likely to interpret the question as an accusation, which will only make her defensive. Instead, suggests Dr. Goldenthal, "try saying, 'You seem really angry with me lately, and I'd like to find out what's bothering you.' Kids respond well to sincerity."
Once your child starts to open up, let him know that you hope the next time something is bothering him he'll tell you about it instead of making sarcastic remarks that hurt your feelings and don't solve the problem. When kids are sarcastic, "try turning away and focusing your attention elsewhere," advises Whitham. "Why dignify sarcasm with any response?" The remarks will stop, she says, if you do this consistently.
When Astrid afKlinteberg, who lives in Gloucester, MA, picked up her 10-year-old daughter, Carson, from cross-country track practice one afternoon, she asked "How was your day?" Carson shot back, "You're on time, unlike usual." Instead of chastising her daughter for her criticism, the mom calmly replied, "Yup, I'm trying to be on time more often, sweetie, and I think I'm getting better at it."
Her daughter immediately softened, afKlinteberg recalls. "A lot of tension seemed to melt away." Instead of dwelling on her daughter's insolence, afKlinteberg was willing to focus on the truth in her child's statement to successfully avoid a battle. Humor can often have the same effect in turning around your child's mood.
When your child continues to talk back, despite your efforts, you may want to try what Whitham calls the "broken record" technique. With older children, says Whitham, "talking back is basically a bad habit used as a diversionary tactic to wear down parents." To break the pattern, simply repeat, very calmly, a short phrase that clearly states your position. For example, your 12-year-old is arguing that he wants to hang out at the mall with his friends. "Why can't I go?" he pleads. "The subject is closed," you say. "You never let me do anything." "The subject is closed." You may also need to establish a clear consequence. For example, "If you bring it up again, you lose an evening of TV." It won't be long before your son gets tired of the routine and makes other plans. "When a child is ticked off, no amount of reasoning is going to win the agreement," says Whitham. "Ultimately, parents need to realize they have the right not to be screamed at."
As children grow, talking back is a part of the constant struggle between dependence and autonomy. When mouthing off becomes chronic, says Braun, you need to seek out the underlying reasons for such behavior. If the child is talking back at school, too, it may be time to find a family counselor to discuss the root of the child's anger. Most of the time, however, "talking back is about testing limits, learning what is and isn't okay," says Dr. Stout. When you help your child develop the ability to express her opinions without trampling other people's feelings, you give her a valuable skill that will serve her well throughout her life.
Originally published in the June/July 2000 issue of Child magazine.
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