Asked to clean her room, an angry child might retort, “Why don’t you go clean your own room?”
A child age 3 to 6 who talks back is uncertain about her role and that of her parents. She may not accept her parents’ authority.
A child who says, “I don’t have to and you can’t make me,” needs to find out how her parents can help her keep herself in control. She may be testing — in effect, asking her parents to reassure her that they will set limits when needed, and that they won’t put up with any talking back.
A child who talks back may feel threatened or criticized by something that has just been said to her. Perhaps she has misunderstood and is not able to learn from what was said. Or perhaps she understood all too well, took the comment personally and is using words to fight back.
A parent who says, “Once in awhile you need to think about someone other than yourself,” is saying something important, but too directly and too harshly for a child to hear. The child might angrily reply, “I do not. You’re the one who needs to think about someone other than yourself!”
Right now she can’t hear what her parent has to say. Talking back pushes the parent’s painful comments as far away as possible. But later, the child may take those difficult words to heart.
When a child talks back, parents can ask themselves: Does she feel powerless and never listened to — or too powerful, and scared that no one seems to be ready to help her keep herself in control?
Does she understand the effects of what she says on other people, and has anybody helped her to see how talking back makes other people feel? What kind of talk goes on around her? How much sarcasm and fighting is she regularly exposed to?
Ways to limit talking back:
1. First, set the limit. “Talking that way isn’t acceptable.”
2. When the child protests or falls apart, pull back and wait for her to settle herself down before trying to help her learn about how to communicate. She may even need a moment of silence or some time alone in her room; then, a cuddle or some gentle humor.
3. Be sure she learns that talking this way will not get her what she wants. Don’t respond to her demand. “When you talk like that to people, they aren’t going to listen. But as soon as you’re ready to change your tone of voice, I’m glad to hear what you have to say.”
4. Suggest more effective ways of talking if she can’t seem to find them on her own. “It is OK for you to disagree about some things. But tell me why you disagree so that I understand. Even if I can’t change my mind, I do want to know what you think. Maybe we still won’t be able to do what you want, but I could help you understand why.”
5. Make sure the child knows what talking back is and what effect it has on others. “When you say things like that (or when you talk with that tone of voice) you make people angry. Or you hurt their feelings. They won’t want to listen to you. When you have important things to say, you need to think about how to say them so that people will listen.”
6. Give her a chance to apologize and try again. “Can you say you’re sorry?” “Are you ready to try to tell me what you have to say with different words (or a different voice)?”
(This article is adapted from “Discipline” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)
Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to: