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Rethinking Back Talk

Jules Ker has worked as a behavioral health therapist for 12 years. She treats children, adults, and couples.


What Is Back Talk?

As a therapist who works with children and families, I often have parents telling me that their child talks back to them. While this behavior is frustrating, it might not be as bad as parents think. The "back talk" might actually be masking some other issue, rather than be a truly disrespectful behavior. Before I expand more on this, let's talk a more in depth look at what "back talk" really is.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “back talk” is defined as “rude speech in reply to someone who should be spoken to with respect”. If you ask your child to do something and he/she replies with "Screw you", "Do it yourself", "You can't make me" or something similar, then, based on the above definition, your child is exhibiting back talk. However, if your child is simply questioning why they have to complete a specific chore or why they can't go to their friend's house or is complaining about having to complete a task, then this type of response does not meet the definition of "back talk". Sure, it's still frustrating to receive this type of a response when you would like your child to do something or when you tell them "no" but this type of response should be treated differently than true back talk.

Reasons for Back Talk

Sometimes your child will engage in back talk because he/she simply does not want to do whatever was asked of them. Other times, the back talk may be your child's means of communicating frustration over not getting his/her way. Alternately, as suggested in the book The Explosive Child, the back talk might be the result of your child not having the skills necessary to complete the request. That might mean, for example, your child doesn't know how to do the dishes or sweep the floor. It also means that while your child might know how to sweep the floor he/she might not have the gross motor skills necessary to complete the task. Additionally, your child might lack the skills necessary to quickly switch from playing a fun game to completing a requested chore. Furthermore, using back talk to express frustration suggests your child lacks appropriate communication skills and/or appropriate emotional regulation skills. Hence, it's important to keep in mind whether your child has all the required "skills" in order to successfully complete each requested task.

How To Handle Back Talk

Many parents feel their child is being disrespectful when he/she exhibits "back talk". This often leads to parents disciplining their child for the back talk. However, I am suggesting a different way of handling this behavior. If the back talk consists of your child swearing at you, such as saying "You are such a bitch" or "You dickhead", then your child should receive a consequence. However, the consequence is for the use of the foul language rather than the back talk itself. If you child is not swearing at you but is swearing about the situation, i.e. "This is shit!" or "Chores fucking suck", you can also give a consequence but again it's for the use of the foul language.

If your child is not swearing at you, even if they are calling you a "stupid moron" or something similar, then I encourage you to ignore the back talk. Ignoring the behavior does not mean that you pretend it did not occur. Instead, you address it by saying "It is not ok for your to talk to me like that. You still need to do the dishes." and then walk away. In essence, the "consequence" is that you left the situation and your child no longer has your attention.

After your child has calmed down (and preferably completed the requested task), you can speak with them about alternate ways to handle themselves when they are mad. This conversation would sound something like "I could tell you were really upset before. What were you upset about?". Wait for an answer and validate it by repeating back what was said. Then follow up with "It's ok to be mad, sad, etc but it's not ok for you to yell at me and use bad words when you are upset. Next time why don't you try...." Fill in the blanks with several suggestions, including listing other more appropriate phrases your child could use, listing ways they could ask for help, and suggestions for different ways they could handle disappointment. Alternately, you could have your child generate ideas for how they can handle themselves differently in the future. Your child is more likely to use the techniques if they come up with the idea themselves.

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If your still skeptical, I understand. We all have different parenting philosophies, a topic I hope to address in a future article. I simply encourage you to try out my suggestions and see how they work. They might prove to be more successful at reducing "back talk" than you think.


Greene, R. W., Ph.D. (1998) The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, "Chronically Inflexible" Children. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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