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.