Teenagers dishing out snappy comebacks on Modern Family and Glee make for great entertainment. Sarcastic comments from your own tweens and teens are seldom as amusing. By the time your kids enter the “mouthy” stage, they have years of experience learning how to push your buttons.
Kids of all ages have sassy moments, but nothing compares to the depth and breadth of teen backtalk, with their vocabulary, life experience and better reasoning skills—sometimes.
Teenage backtalk can follow many themes: You don’t understand. You ruined my life. Your generation has ruined the lives of everyone in my generation. You treat me like a baby. You expect too much of me.
We all know that backtalk is age appropriate and a rite of passage, but that doesn’t make it easier to tolerate. Maybe this will put it in perspective: Recent research from the University of Virginia shows that teens who argue with their parents are 40 percent more likely to reject drugs and alcohol. It appears that arguments in the home can become “a critical training ground” for their behavior among peers.
So instead of shushing them when they argue, researchers believe parents should teach teens to present their arguments in a logical, respectful way. It helps the teen feel he’s being heard, and it teaches him to have confidence in his convictions and may help him say no to risky behaviors.
So keep the arguments healthy without escalating to a power struggle. Try these techniques:
Choose your battles. Experts have been telling you to choose your battles since you had a toddler, but it becomes important again with teens. You can safely ignore some of the inconsequential stuff. The teen who does a chore while rolling his eyes or mumbling under his breath is at least doing his chore. He can get a cheery, “Thank you for taking out the garbage!” rather than an argument-provoking, “I don’t like your attitude, young man!” On the other hand, if a request to do a chore is met with defiance, that’s a battle worth fighting.
Diffuse and disengage. The first time your child talks back rudely, you’re probably going to be taken by surprise. Try hard to not react. Just keep a phrase in mind for these situations: “We’ll talk about this when you’ve had a chance to calm down.” This not only gives the teen a break if she’s out of control, but it also gives you time to think about what you want to say.
Make expectations clear. Teens often lose their mental filter and forget to take others’ feelings or circumstances into consideration. They may need to be reminded of your expectations for their manners and contributions to the household, and the consequences if they don’t fulfill your expectations. Take a few minutes, at a calm moment, to run through these, treating him like the young adult you hope he’s becoming. You might even write them down in contract form.
Match the consequences to the offense. By waiting until both of you have calmed down, you can be sure your reaction will be reasonable and appropriate. Yelling, “You’re grounded for a month!” over something trivial can be excessive or, worse, impossible to impose. Having to go back on a consequence delivered when angry will undermine your authority and credibility.
Instead, come up with suitable consequences in advance and let your teen know what they are. The privileges that hurt teens the most are loss of access to anything social: gaming systems, cell phones, computers and the car. Even losing just one day of these privileges can be torture.
Be creative but logical in finding consequences. If your teen refuses to take out the garbage or fold his laundry, tell him you might have to do it—which means you won’t have time to do other things for him, such as make dinner or drive him to a friend’s house.
Calmly repeat “one-liners.” Much teenage backtalk amounts to complaining after a consequence has been imposed. The Love and Logic Institute discourages parents from trying to reason but to respond with a soft, empathetic voice and one of these one-liners: “I love you too much to argue.” “I bet it feels that way.” “What do you think you’re going to do?”
Model better behavior. You can’t control your child’s behavior, but you can control your own. Argue fairly with a calm voice and don’t interrupt, and you’ll be modeling a skill your teen can use his whole life. And it just might make the teen years a little more bearable.