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When A Child Talks Back, Don't Argue

Do this instead...

"Talking back" (or "backtalk") is a common yet exasperating behavior. When children consistently challenge boundaries or resist cooperation, patience can wear thin as frustration mounts. In these moments, it can become incredibly tempting to start yelling and implementing consequences.

However, if your goal is to deescalate the situation, this is that last thing that you want to do.

Before diving into an alternative approach, let's first look at reasons as to why this behavior occurs:

  1. Cognitive Development: As children grow, they start thinking more critically, leading them to question or challenge adults, as highlighted by Jean Piaget's theory of the stages of cognitive development.

  2. Emotional Regulation: Young children, with their still-developing prefrontal cortex, might impulsively talk back when overwhelmed or frustrated.

  3. Modeling Behavior: According to Bandura's Social Learning Theory, children imitate observed behaviors, including talking back if they see it regularly.

  4. Testing Boundaries: Children often test rules and boundaries; talking back can be an experiment to gauge adult reactions.

  5. Seeking Attention: Using principles from operant conditioning, some children talk back to gain attention, even if it's negative.

Considering each these potential causes of backtalk, ensuring a child feels secure and acknowledged is a more effective than immediate reprimands or punitive actions.

You can do this by using the S.E.E. approach. Here's how:

#1 - Soothe

Give the child the space and tools to either co-regulate or self-regulate.

  • "You sounds frustrated. Shall we take some deep breaths together?"

  • "I can see that you're upset. Would you like to take a break?"

  • "It's okay to feel upset. Let's cool down and talk about this when we're both ready."

#2 - Empathize

Connect with the child and acknowledge their feelings.

  • "Sometimes plans change. I know that can be disappointing. I'm here for you."

  • "I understand why you feel that way. Would you like to talk about it?"

  • "Thank you for explaining that to me. That really helps me to understand how you're feeling."

#3 - Engage

Move past the issue by offering choices and/or engaging them in a new task.

  • "Would you like to pick the song we'll listen to while we . . . . ?"

  • "Would you like to come help me with . . . . ?"

  • "Would you like to keep this stress ball to squeeze in case you feel frustrated again?"

Talking back is a child's way of regaining control when they feel out of control. Don't escalate the situation by asserting authority.

Make them feel safe and seen.

For a free one page quick-reference sheet, click HERE.

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Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Diamond, A. (2002). Normal development of prefrontal cortex from birth to young adulthood: Cognitive functions, anatomy, and biochemistry. In D.T. Stuss & R.T. Knight (Eds.), Principles of frontal lobe function (pp. 466-503). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.


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