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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and growing your child’s skills to communicate respectfully provides a perfect opportunity.
Conflict happens in families — between spouses, among siblings, and between parents and children. Arguing in family life is normal and expected. “Back talk” can be defined as “argumentative replies.”1 Children can respond in anger, hurt, frustration, hurtful tones, or with hurtful words. “Back talk” also represents a power imbalance children are trying to rectify. In order to regain some power, children lash out with hurtful words. Power, after all, is a basic human need. Children ages 5-10 are building their skills in listening, empathy, assertive communication, and problem solving. Building your child’s skills to respond in assertive but non-aggressive ways is essential to their success.
Yet, anyone can face challenges with back talk. “You can’t tell me what to do!” your child may exclaim in embarrassment and frustration after riding a bike into a busy street. Your child’s responses can press on your rawest nerves, angering and upsetting you. As your child develops, they will need to test their limits and the rules in order to internalize them. This can lead to power struggles between you and your child. Your child will also have evolving emotional needs but, at times, lack the communication skills necessary to ask for what they need. Using the steps below can help navigate this struggle with skill. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Why Back Talk?
When Montana parents were surveyed, “back talk” rose to the top of the parenting challenges listed. Whether it’s your five-year-old screaming, “I hate you,” your second grader shouting, “No, I won’t go!” when you need them to leave a friend’s house, or your nine-year-old crying, “It’s all your fault,” when they’ve spilled a plate of spaghetti on the floor, establishing healthy ways of responding to life’s most challenging moments in ways that do not harm themself or others are vital skills your child needs to thrive.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to respond to upset or disagreements in healthy ways can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, managing conflict in your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child communicate during your toughest, most emotional moments in ways that do not harm. It also builds critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about healthy ways to communicate by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when confronting challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life; and
- will grow self-control, empathy, assertive communication, and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child in their ability to communicate in healthy ways. For example, if your child is hurt or feeling rejected, is their normal response to lash out in self-protection? Begin by considering the following.
- Ask about how your child feels when arguing with a family member or friend.
- “What gets you really upset or mad at a friend, a relative, Mom and Dad?”
- “What feelings do you experience?” (Name the multiple feelings that occur.)
- “How does your body feel when you’re upset?” (Name the ways that your child physically experiences being upset whether it’s a red hot face or a racing heartbeat.)
- “Have you hurt another person’s feelings when you’ve argued? How did that feel?”
- “How might you have argued differently to express your needs but not harm the other person?”
- Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others’ and seek support when they need it. This can help your child gain competence.
- Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent angry or frustrated can differ greatly from what angers or frustrates a child. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because intense feelings like anger and hurt occur as you go about your daily life, you may not consider their role and impact on your child. Intense feelings can have a major influence on the day and on your relationship with your child. Your child is learning how to be in healthy relationships, and, in the learning process, they will make mistakes and poor choices. How you, as a parent or someone in a parenting role, handle those moments can determine how you help build their conflict management skills. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through. Here are some examples.
- Five-year-olds are working on understanding rules and routines. Consistency helps them feel a sense of stability.
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules. They thrive on encouragement. They can become critical of others and need experience with kindness and inclusion.
- Seven-year-olds crave structure and may struggle with changes to the schedule. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults.
- Eight-year-olds are more resilient when they make mistakes. Their peers’ and teachers’ approval is very important.
- Nine-year-olds can become easily frustrated. They need directions that contain one instruction. They may worry about peer approval and their own appearance and interests.
- Ten-year-olds are developing a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness. They tend to be able to work through conflicts with friends more rapidly.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive words and tone of voice you want your child to use, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Reflect on how you currently model communication when you’re upset. Any actions, words, or tones of voice you use with your child will be repeated and mimicked back to you by your child. If you yell, your child will yell. If you criticize, your child will criticize. Consider how you react to your child when you are upset.
- Ask yourself, “If my child repeats back to me what I say when I am angry and in my tone of voice, will it be acceptable to me at home? In public?”
- Consider which words, actions, and tones you want to see in your child and which you do not. Next, decide what words, actions, and tones you do not want to use so you are only modeling what you want to see and hear.
- From research, the following fighting habits hurt others and destroy trust in one another.2 In fact, these can encourage more “back talk” from your child. In forging healthy communications with others, including your child, these fighting habits should not be used.
- Do not use physical force. Using physical force in a conflict (including spanking) signals that the individual has lost control and only believes they can regain it with physical dominance. This is harmful and breaks trust.
- Do not talk about others negatively when they are not present. Going directly to the person with whom you have the problem is the healthiest way to address a problem. For example, when you go to one family member to complain about another, you are harming both family relationships.
- Do not criticize. Judging or commenting on the character of a person in the struggle hurts the other. Instead, focus your energies and words on solving the problem at hand.
- Do not show contempt. Using hostile humor, sarcasm, name calling, mockery, or baiting body language harms the other person. These all involve some kind of aggression or character attack with the implicit intention of causing harm.
- Do not become defensive or blaming. Pointing fingers and using “You…” language is blaming. Words like “always,” “never,” or “forever” cannot represent the truth and break down trust. Own your feelings and role in the situation, and the argument will remain constructive.
- Do not stonewall. Actively refusing to listen, shutting down the argument, or giving the silent treatment harms the other person and breaks down trust.
- Play like a hermit crab to help calm down. When hermit crabs get scared, upset, or stressed, they bury themselves in their shell, and you cannot see them. Pretend with your child that you are upset. Create a simple, even funny problem like, you are so mad because there’s no ice cream in the freezer.
- Talk about how you feel. Angry? Sad? Worried? Is your heart beating faster? Do you feel like shouting? Instead, go into your shell by crouching down on the floor and burying your head in your arms. Close your eyes and breathe together slowly.
- After a few moments, reemerge and tell each other specifically how you were feeling then and how you are feeling now. Owning your own feelings in an argument is key to resolving the argument constructively.
- Now, say what you feel you need. For example, “I need your attention,” or “I need you to listen to me,” or “I need you to understand my point of view.” After you’ve heard each others’ needs, talk about how you can help each other get your needs met.
- End the game with love. A hug, a high five, or a fist bump can show that you are in this together even when you are upset and disagree.
- Begin to teach your child to repair harm. A critical step in teaching children about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Harm could be physical, like breaking something, or emotional, like hurting someone’s feelings. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. Everyone has moments when they hurt another, but it’s that next step that matters in repairing the relationship.
If your child struggles to give you a feeling word, then offer them options and ask which ones fit their true emotions. This helps expand their feelings vocabulary.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily disagreements can be opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child works hard to manage feelings, words, and choices constructively.
Practice also provides important opportunities to develop consequential thinking or the ability to think ahead to the potential impact of a particular choice and evaluate whether it’s a positive choice based on those reflections.
- Allow your child the chance to assert their needs in small ways like ordering for themselves in a restaurant or asking for your attention in healthy ways.
- Consider how you can create the conditions to support their success (like offering coaching or guided open-ended questions to prompt thinking) so that your child learns to become their own best problem solver.
- Share a range of feeling words regularly to become more comfortable with expressing feelings.
- Practice the hermit crab game on more challenging problems. Then, when in a heated moment, gently remind your child, “Remember what the hermit crab does?”
- Practice deep breathing to help calm down when you have spare moments together like while waiting in line, driving in the car, and at bedtime.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child how to meet their challenges with skill and persistence and you are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to do those new tasks well and independently. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, following through on logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful, teaching cause and effect thinking (as they address problems and conflicts), and helping them grow skills in taking responsibility.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work to resolve a problem. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! You could say, “Show me you can go into your shell and calm down before we talk this through.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you talked to your sister about how you were feeling and then worked with her on a way to come to an agreement. That’s excellent!”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is frustrated or feeling incapable, proactively remind your child of their strength. In a gentle, non-public way you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how you talked to your sister yesterday? You can use that same strategy with your friend today.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can say, “Seems like you are holding onto angry feelings toward your friend. What are some ways you could approach your friend? What options do you think you have?” Be sure to reflect on outcomes of possible choices.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should follow soon after the behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Learning new behaviors to replace inappropriate behaviors takes time. Your child will likely not do it right the first time (or even the second or third!). That’s OK. What’s important is that you approach growing skills to manage conflict by understanding feelings, teaching new behaviors, and practicing all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child is what is most important.
Don’t move on or nag. Children often need more time to deal with their feelings and approach someone with whom they are upset. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they can address their problems on their own with your support. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to work through their problems.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You took a deep breath when you got upset — that is a great idea!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t argue with your sister in the car, I will get you candy when we stop at the store” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were getting along well with your sister. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is bravely facing their sister who hurt them, for example, a short, specific call-out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you told me your feelings when you were upset. That’s exactly how we can work together.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child makes up for a poor choice by apologizing sincerely to a friend, recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.