Say WHAAT? Taming Teenage Back Talk
Everyone has a pet peeve. Mine is this: Whateverrrrr! One word can start the argument of the century. I realize there are much worse things a teen can say, but for some reason “whateverrrrr” says it all for me. It means, “I don’t care what you think, you just don’t get it, get out of my face” all in one fell swoop.
What can parents do about annoying smart mouths? Some let it go and say they have more serious things to worry about, such as drinking, drugs and premarital sex. Others don’t put up with it. For me, talking back is a sign of disrespect and should be handled as such. Teens should be taught how to speak up for themselves and to voice their opinions, but there is an appropriate way of doing so.
Keeping it in perspective
Does back talk really start in the teens? What about when you asked your 2-year-old to pick up his toys and he said, “No!” and sneered at you? Although back talk is not strictly a teen phenomenon, it does seem to happen more often and with more disdain than when kids are young. Parents have different opinions about where to draw the line, but most feel that outright rudeness should not be tolerated.
Just like toddlers, teenagers are struggling to become independent from their parents. That independence is necessary as they approach adulthood. Dr. Alec Miller, a doctor of psychology and chief of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y., explains, “Teens are striving to become more autonomous. To do so requires them to assert their own needs and wishes, even when those wishes are not in the context of good judgment and even when they are in direct conflict with the parents’ wishes.”
Teens like to argue. As long as it is respectful arguing, parents can learn to embrace this. There are those times, however, when a sharp tongue rears its ugly head. Then it’s time to put the clamps on.
Don’t get bent out of shape
How do parents get their teens to back off the snide back talk? Parents should remember that they are the authority in the household. A teen who talks rudely to a parent once or twice and gets away with it will continue the behavior, and it will progressively get worse. If a teen’s language or attitude is inappropriate, there should be consequences.
Parents should also try to remain calm even if their teen is raising her voice. Screaming back at your teen or returning her flippant comments reinforces the bad behavior. If the tone is disrespectful, parents should ignore argumentative comments and walk away. If she follows, reinforce that you will not tolerate rude and obnoxious language. If she wants to talk, you will listen, but only if her tone is appropriate. Stick to this position, and don’t give in. Show her that she can get her way more easily with respectful language.
“It’s important for parents to consider that this behavior is somewhat developmentally appropriate,” Miller says. “Parents can acknowledge that their teens need to go through this phase and not take it too personally. At the same time, however, it is important for parents to set appropriate limits with their teens.”
If it’s an argument, Miller says parents should validate their teen’s feelings, and also explain why they’ve taken their stance.
Teens will disagree, and do so often. This is a natural part of their development. It’s the tone and delivery that may not be acceptable.
Myrna Beth Haskell is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting issues and children’s development. She is the mother of two teenagers.