How to Respond When Your Kid Gives You Attitude

From toddlerhood to preschool to grade school, kids are learning how to navigate their world and that often means testing boundaries and trying on different attitudes. Here's how to respond.

Nothing pushes a parent's buttons more than being on the receiving end of "back talk" from their child. But what parents might perceive as bold defiance and a lack of respect from young children is often a symptom of something else, be it a lack of impulse control, an inability to self-regulate, or even a desire for attention.

Ultimately, getting into a major power struggle will just cause more stress—and yelling isn't going to win your child's respect. On the other hand, simply ignoring your kid's attitude won't make it miraculously disappear either. "The biggest mistake we make is assuming rude behavior is a phase that will go away on its own," says Michele Borba, Ph.D., author of Don't Give Me That Attitude: 24 Rude, Selfish, Insensitive Things Kids Do and How to Stop Them.

What this means for parents is that how you respond to your child's "back talk" will set the tone for future interactions and will help your child learn the appropriate way to deal with their feelings. Our age-specific strategies will help you stay calm in the heat of a challenging moment and reinforce positive behavior that will create healthier communication for the whole family.

Toddlers and Testing Boundaries

Your once-mellow baby has become an opinionated 2-year-old who responds to your request to put away their toys with a hands-on-the-hips, head-cocked, "You're not the boss of me!"

How to respond

First, count to three. A snappy comeback might help you blow off some steam, but there is no dignity in mudslinging with a minor. Instead, consider what's likely motivating their reaction, and remember that this is a teachable moment.

You might say, "You seem upset. Were you not finished playing with your blocks?" Then help by giving clear, specific instructions that they can follow: "It's time for dinner now, so it's time to put your blocks away. You can get them back out again later." Remember, toddlers learn by testing boundaries—you need to help them focus on what you want them to do.

The big picture

Think of your toddler as a scientist. They are trying to discover what kind of reaction they can provoke. They may have realized already that if they pick up their toys when you ask, you'll go check your e-mail or start dinner. But a little attitude and—wham!—they now have your full attention.

So don't slip away and attend to business when your child is happily engaged. Instead, focus on your child. This positive reinforcement will gradually teach them that they don't need to provoke you to get your attention.

When they do give you attitude, don't take the bait, but don't ignore it either. "Call your child on it in a clear, simple, unemotional way," says Dr. Borba. Come up with a statement and automatically use it every time you feel they are crossing the line. For example: "That's rude talk. Please rewind and try it again."

Preschoolers and Big Emotions

Your 4-year-old comes home from a long day at school in a crabby mood, sprawls out on the couch, and whines for ice cream. When you say "No dessert until after dinner," they look you dead in the eye and yell: "You're stupid! I hate you!"

How to respond

Your child's outburst is likely more of an expression of the frustration they feel as a small child in a big world than intentional rudeness or meanness. "We talk about the 'terrible twos,' but 4-year-olds are challenging too. They want to be independent but often feel incredibly helpless," says Sara Grunstein, a clinical social worker in Berkeley, California.

It's best if you don't respond angrily when they call you a name like "stupid." Instead, remind them that name-calling is mean—and hurts people's feelings. Then ask your child to rephrase what they want to say in a nice way.

The big picture

Behaving all day at school is hard work. So it's no surprise that many kids wait until they get home to let it all hang out. Understanding that your child's moodiness is likely a coping strategy can help you keep your cool.

First, make sure your child has had a healthy snack and isn't exhausted. Conversely, they may have a lot of pent-up energy from sitting still all day that they need to use up. If so, go on a bike ride or blast some music and dance around the living room.

Later, when you're cuddling on the couch, remind your child that there's a rule against using mean words in your house. "A great way to communicate the nuances of polite versus rude talk to 4-year-olds is by reading and telling stories about other children's sassy behavior," says Grunstein. "Your kid will absorb the lesson without even realizing it."

Kindergarteners and Managing Their Feelings

You tell your 5-year-old to turn off the TV, and they throw the remote on the floor, run into their room, and slam the door. Sound familiar?

How to respond

At this age, your child is still learning how to manage tough feelings, such as disappointment or anger when they can't do things they want. Being angry is OK, but your child has to learn that hurling objects and slamming doors is always against the rules.

At age 5, kids still have a hard time dealing with anger, but they're old enough to learn from consequences. There are different ways to help your child learn to manage anger but start by encouraging them to name their feelings out loud with words. This helps set the foundation for healthy emotional development.

Next, you can help them find a safe space in the house to process their feelings, like a reading corner, or if you're in public, stepping outside. If your child expresses their anger in physical ways, it's also important to reinforce that hurting themselves or others is never OK.

The big picture

Learning how to feel mad in a safe and appropriate way is something even grown-ups struggle with. "Kids who react physically when they're feeling angry are usually doing it because they don't have another way of expressing this overwhelming emotion," says Henry A. Paul, M.D., author of When Kids Are Mad, Not Bad.

So the long-term project is to give your kid constructive ways to communicate their feelings. Help them get used to describing their emotions with words or a drawing rather than with a temper tantrum.

First-Graders and Learning New Things

Dinner's almost ready and you call out from the kitchen, "Are you ready to start setting the table?" As usual, your 6-year-old barely looks up from their video game. After you ask several times, they finally respond mockingly, "I don't know. Am I?"

How to respond

Many kids this age actually love a chance to give a little "back talk." It fits perfectly with a school-age child's sense of humor, desire to test you, and quest to stake out some independent territory. "Your mistake was asking your child a question instead of giving a direct instruction," says Karin L. Price, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Texas Children's Hospital's Learning Support Center for Child Psychology. "If you make it a request, then you're inviting him to decline."

The big picture

Friends are a huge influence on a 6-year-old. Your child almost can't help themselves from bringing home the snarky comebacks from the playground. Even if you're super strict about the TV, movies, and video games your kid is exposed to, the best-loved popular culture of the grade-school set is filled with potty humor and name-calling. Or, in other words, an all-out celebration of challenging behavior itself.

Now's the time to start laying down rules about appropriate ways to talk in front of adults versus around their friends, and if necessary, do a check of the regular type of behavior they are exposed to in their entertainment choices. Since fitting in is so important, you don't want to take the joy out of playground chatter, but be clear and firm about your expectation: Rude retorts are banned when grown-ups are around.

Finally, don't forget to praise your child when they are polite. "It's much easier for your kid to know how you want him to act when he gets positive feedback for his good behavior," says Dr. Price.

Parents and Role Modeling

At the end of the day, it's our job as parents to model the behavior we want to see from our kids—and that includes managing difficult emotions appropriately and treating people with respect rather than attitude.

So while it may not be easy to think about, if you're dealing with more attitude than usual from your kiddo, it's important to consider whether there is a chance that your kid has picked up some bad habits from watching you. Not sure? Score yourself on our 'Tude Test to find out.

Take a quick quiz

When your partner, who's sitting on the couch answering emails while you're making dinner, asks you to grab the crying baby, do you:

  • A: Say sarcastically, "Sure, because I'm not busy or anything here."
  • B: Pick up the baby and angrily shove them in your partner's lap.
  • C: Nicely say, "Sorry, I'm in the middle of dinner here, do you mind grabbing them?"

You've just sat down for dinner and your toddler screams, "Where's my fawk?!" Do you:

  • A: Angrily reply: "I'm not getting you anything until you ask me nicely."
  • B: Sigh loudly but get them a fork.
  • C: Say cheerfully, "Oh, I forgot to give you a fork? I'd be happy to get you one but let me get a 'please' first."

At bedtime, your sweet angel asks for 522 extra kisses. Do you:

  • A: Get frustrated and ask, "Why do you always have to make going to bed such an ordeal?"
  • B: Say, "Oh, OK," secretly wishing the whole time that you were checking e-mail.
  • C: Tell them "No, but I'll give you five giant ones! I have grown-up things to do now and you need your sleep."

Score yourself

Score mostly A's? It's possible your attitude is rubbing off on your kid. Try counting to three before you respond when you're frustrated—no matter how irritated you are.

Score mostly B's? You might be modeling a little passive-aggressive behavior and, trust us, it will come back to haunt you!

Score mostly C's? You're on the right track and can take comfort in the fact that any attitude your child might display probably isn't a direct influence from you.

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