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Constant Back Talk: Tips for Parents of Tweens and Teens

By John Townsend, Ph.D.

One of the signs that you have turned the parenting corner into another world is the start of back talk. Whether it be sarcasm, argumentativeness, rudeness or plain old in-your-face defiance, you now wonder what happened to the child who thought you were really cool, loved learning from you and obeyed every request. And you have several more years of life with someone who not only thinks for herself, but does it in a way that is not fun to be with.

Here are some tips to handle back talk in a way that works.

Normalize it. Back talk is actually a good sign. It is a challenge to you but it also indicates that your child is beginning to form and consolidate a sense of personhood. The technical term for this is “individuation,” meaning that the tween/teen is becoming a personality, with core values and ways of relating. Kids need this to become strong, autonomous and capable adults.

Children who miss out on this stage, who stay compliant and unquestioning, struggle a great deal in life and often end up with destructive dependent relationships with the wrong people, substituting them for you as parental figures. So just realize that when your child challenges your decisions, she is learning to hatch out of the egg, and that is fundamentally a good thing.

Set some ground rules. Kids generally don’t know the right way to challenge someone, so they often go too far. They need healthy parameters from you. Here are the best ones:

  • Permission: It’s OK for you to tell me you disagree with a decision of mine. Sometimes it will be up for discussion and sometimes it will not. But I’m fine with you letting me know your thoughts.
  • Respect: I need for you to disagree respectfully, in three ways:
    • Words: Use words that are not unkind, disrespectful or profane.
    • Attitude: No eye-rolling, sneering or sarcastic tones.
    • Behavior: No yelling, stomping out of the room or slamming doors.
  • Limits: Even after I have heard your point of view and understand where you are coming from, I may still come to a decision that doesn’t please you. It’s fine for you to express displeasure once or even twice, but don’t keep bringing it up. It is hard on me and the whole family when you won’t accept reality. So drop it.

Affirm respectful challenges. Positivity is always a good thing, and we need to say something to our kid when we see it! So when your teen challenges you in a healthy way, just say, “I really appreciate how you handled our conversation about your curfew. I know you disagree with me, and I assure you I will keep thinking about your reasons. But I was very impressed by how mature and respectful you were with me. I feel that you are growing up very fast, and very well.”

Outline consequences. There are times when the back talk is so ingrained or chronic that it borders on disrespect. This is a signal that you need to establish healthy and meaningful consequences: “I was clear with you about the ground rules, and you have ignored them.  The next time you cross one of those lines with me, I won’t argue with you. I will just immediately remove your smartphone/tablet/remote/driving privileges/social outings this weekend. I hope that will help you control yourself.” And be sure to follow up or it’s a waste of your time.

Maintain perspective. Keep the big picture in mind when you are raising a tween/teen: It is about the future. Your child may be driving you nuts and wearing you down. But remember, what you do today affects the kind of adult, spouse, parent, worker and human being she will be one day. Be strong, be smart and be consistent. Best to your parenting.

How to Cultivate a Grateful Home

The national conversation is so full of criticism and negativity that it can be difficult to find opportunities to express gratitude. It’s easy to forget what we have when we’re aggravated by outside forces. Busyness distracts us, and struggles let us down. Worry reminds us we’re not in control, and pain can cause faith to feel distant. However, God grants us hope by giving us a choice to choose gratefulness.

Gratitude allows God to do more than transform our situation, it lets Him in to transform our hearts. Giving praise grants God power over our struggles and reminds us that He is the ultimate force for good. We can then thrive in His peace as we let go of the troubles that hold us back.

Creating a grateful home begins with parents. As our hearts become filled with gratitude, our teens can learn from our example, allowing gratitude to give them the hope that transcends earthly distractions and aggravations. Here are some tips to begin cultivating a grateful home:

Seek opportunities to serve with your family.
Whether it’s a kind favor for a neighbor or a mission trip, serving acknowledges that we can always give what we have. Serving gives us a purpose outside of ourselves. This will also foster nurturing relationships that teach teens to be thoughtful and encouraging to those around them.

Teach praise in prayer.
As you pray with your teen, remember to express thanksgiving to God for all that you have been given. Although it’s easy to ask God for things, we often forget to thank Him for the blessings He has bestowed. Praising God as you pray with your teen models gratitude and turns the focus on all He is doing in your lives.

Practice appreciation.
Acknowledging the efforts of others fosters active participation in gratefulness. Teaching teens to express gratitude to others diverts attention away from self and onto the good in other people. Lead by example and vocally affirm what you appreciate in your teen.

Positive thoughts combined with action allow us to position ourselves toward a stance of gratitude. Sharing this outlook with teens shows them how to thrive through their pain. God can be praised in every moment; Thanksgiving is not merely a holiday but rather a reflection of our hearts. Every day provides an opportunity to create a grateful heart, and a grateful home.

Talking to your Daughter

Do you feel like your relationship with your daughter is strained? Do you feel disconnected from what is going on in her life? You aren’t alone. Many parents tend to feel this way when their child becomes a teenager, but taking an interest in her life will help to foster connectedness even during a difficult stage.

Connecting with teenagers can be difficult. Often they respond with one-word answers or shut themselves off in their rooms. But starting with less invasive questions (What’s your favorite class right now? What did you think about last night’s episode on TV?) can sometimes open the door to more. The key is to show warmth, interest and care, even when you feel shut out.

Though you might feel like you are bothering her, check in with your daughter every day. Even if she doesn’t feel like talking, she will appreciate having your full attention for a period of time each day. If she does feel like talking, here are some good questions to ask to learn more about her life and to show you care:

What do you need from me in your life right now?
It’s important to know when your child needs someone to lean on. Be there to talk to her and listen to what she’s saying. It’s important that she knows you are always there for her and a consistent source of support.

What happened in your day today?
This can seem like one of those questions that would annoy your daughter, but it shows you are engaged in her life and want to know about what she’s going through. This simple question can spark a great conversation between the two of you.

Do you know how much I love you?
It’s always special to remind your child that no matter what, you will always love her. The teenage years can be some of the hardest of her life, and reinforcing your love will allow her to open up to you.

What do you daydream about?
This is an important question to ask. Knowing what she is hoping to achieve in the future can allow you to lead her in the right direction. Let her achieve her goals as independently as possible, but ensure she knows you are there to help whenever she needs it.

What makes you happy?
Knowing what makes your child happy can be invaluable information, though she might find it hard to put into words. Knowing some things that make her happy can help you connect with her in ways that she enjoys. She may seem to always prefer friends over time with parents, but she will appreciate your attempts to connect with her world.

Sometimes a simple question is all it takes to strengthen bonds with your daughter. She still needs you even if she doesn’t show it, and she wants you even if she doesn’t know it.