How to Respond When Your Child Talks Back

talks back
Dr. Bob Barnes and Torrey Roberts Sheridan House Family Ministries

“I know I need to do something when my child is talking back,” a frustrated mother blurted out, “I just don’t know what to do!”

Parents and Child That Talks Back

 Parents should expect their children to misbehave and rebel. Why? Because they’re children!  Understanding that reality. It should also be expected that parents need to get ready for this misbehavior by developing the best possible parental responses.

When my daughter Torrey was a year old, she had her first seizure. I had no idea what to do and didn’t respond very well. In fact, my wife had to deal not only with a child having a seizure, but also a husband who was out of control. Sitting in the hospital trying to calm down, I asked Torrey’s doctor two questions: Will this ever happen again and if so, how can I respond in a more helpful manner? The doctor told us it might happen again and then gave me a better way to deal with it.

My toddler did in fact have one more seizure. I didn’t like it, but I did know how to respond… rather than react. This time my response was productive rather than destructive. 

Most of the time the child’s misbehavior is actually repetitive behavior. That means shame on me for not thinking through what to do. It’s not new, so it shouldn’t catch me off guard. I’ve seen this behavior before.


Rules for a proper response

talks backThe first time a child misbehaves, throws a temper tantrum or talks back is the time to prepare for the next time. This is the warning signal that a proper response needs to be thought through.

There are rules for selecting a proper consequence. The first decision to make is “purpose.” What’s the purpose of a consequence?

The purpose of a consequence is to teach the child to think and eventually choose to control their impulses. The selection of a consequence that will be used consistently will eventually teach the child to control himself.

Every time one of our children talked back they were required to sit at the kitchen table and write a fifty word note of apology. If they were too young to write, they were required to get a bucket and fill it with weeds. Every time they did this particular unacceptable behavior, they were required to do the very same consequence.

Sitting at the table writing the fifty-word apology was a consequence that should have taken the child about five minutes. The first few times our children were not permitted to get up from the table until they finished writing the note. This five-minute assignment took one of our children over an hour. This child just sat there. After thirty minutes the child picked up the pencil and began to write. After several episodes of being required to sit there until it was done, the child realized it was no use stalling. He just wrote the note. Due to the fact that the consequence was going to happen every time and they weren’t going to be allowed to get up, the child started working on the more significant discipline: that of controlling the tongue.

Did it happen immediately? No! But the results would have been prolonged if we caved in and let them get up without completing the assignment.


Selecting a consequence

There are rules for selecting the best consequence. First and foremost, see that you – the parent – don’t become part of the consequence. If you are out of control by yelling and screaming, you are using the withdrawal of your love as a consequence. You then lose the child rather than train the child.

Second select a consequence that you are willing to enforce. If, for instance, you aren’t willing to see to it that the child stays at the table until the note is written, the child will get up and all is lost. 

Third, select a consequence that is commensurate with the behavior and age. There are times when an upset or frustrated parent can overreact and assign a consequence that is far too severe. That’s why it is better to think through and decide on consequences before you are in the heat of the battle of the wills. At that point the emotions are too high to respond appropriately. 

Lastly, remember why you are imposing the consequence. It’s to train the child not to scare the child. It’s to establish behavioral expectations so that you can build an atmosphere where the parent child relationship can grow rather than stay in a constant state of war.

Be German about the consequence and Italian about the love. Be objective and unemotional about imposing and following through on the consequence, but use a lot of touch and talk about the love. Remember, we’re training the child to eventually choose to make better decisions. We’re not trying to dominate the child into being afraid of us. The goal is to be so consistent that the child actually begins to realize that by misbehaving he or she is actually choosing to have to write that note…every time. Then get on with the relationship.


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