What to do when your child talks back or sasses you

"The art of mothering is to teach the art of living to children." -- Elaine Heffner

iStock/Used with PermissionSource: iStock/Used with Permission

Most kids go through phases of trying out rude behavior toward their parents. And all humans sometimes let a momentary irritation get the better of them, so they snap at others.

Parents are often advised to ignore mild eye rolling but to crack down on real disrespect. But how do you know the difference? What does cracking down look like and is that effective? Should you really strategically ignore mouthy behavior, from a toddler or a tween?

I don't think ignoring any provocative behavior from a child is a good idea. When kids express irritability towards us -- often called "back talk" -- they're trying to tell us something, and if we don't listen, they just escalate.

But that doesn't mean you "crack down" harshly, either, because that erodes your relationship with your child and makes disrespectful behavior even more likely in the future.

Your goal is to calmly re-establish your family standard for respect. You do that by modeling respect while you invite constructive communication to solve your child's problem, at the same time setting clear expectations about communication in your family.

Let your kids place an order. Once a week, allow your children to choose what's for dinner and cook it for them.

Here's your three step strategy.

1. Monitor your own language and model respect as you interact with your child, even when they sass you. In general, if you find yourself criticizing or yelling, bite your tongue. Don't be afraid to set limits, but wait until you can speak calmly and respectfully. (Don't worry, your child won't forget they sassed you. They aren't a puppy.)

2. Don't take it personally . Remind yourself that your child is still learning self-control and right now they have a problem, which is causing them to lose patience. Acknowledge the problem they're having (and if appropriate offer to help), even as you set a limit about their tone. Kids think twice about hurting the feelings of parents they feel supported by. In general, strengthen your relationship with your child by looking for every opportunity to positively connect. Be sure you spend at least 15 minutes alone with each child every day, giving them your focused, positive attention.

3. When your child speaks hurtfully to you, calmly confront their hurtful words or tone and set a clear expectation for respectful communication:

"Ouch! Those words sound like they're meant to hurt. You must be upset to speak to me that way. You know I don't speak to you in that tone. You can tell me what you're upset about without attacking me. What's going on?"

Or, if you know already, "I hear that you're very angry at me right now. I hear how much you wish I would say yes to what you're wanting. I want to hear more about this, but I can't listen when I feel attacked. Let's talk about this when we're both more calm."

Notice that we're teaching kids how to be in relationship with another person.

  • If we react disrespectfully to their rudeness, we perpetuate the behavior because we're modeling disrespect.
  • If we ignore their disrespect, we escalate the behavior, because we aren't responding to what they're expressing or the way they're expressing it.
  • If we acknowledge that they're having a problem, offer to help them with that problem, and invite them to treat us respectfully -- just as we're modeling -- the child learns to communicate respectfully, even when emotions get hot.

Special times. Set aside a few minutes at a regular time each day when you can give your undivided attention to your child. This quiet calm time – no TV, iPad or phones - can be a confidence builder for young children. As little as five minutes a day can make a difference.

No shocker here, but children learn their behavior from us. Sure, they'll try on the attitudes they see at school and in movies. But when we set a clear limit about how people are to be treated, and we model that behavior, kids will follow our lead.

If only it were this simple to get them to empty the dishwasher.