Sassy Bossy Back Talk – Understanding Why It Happens and What to Do

Sassy Bossy Back Talk - Understanding Why It Happens and What to Do

The smile that lights up your day; that laugh that warms you up with joy and optimism; the ability to show you the world through innocent eyes: kids can be such amazing parts of our lives with their constant ability to learn and grow, teaching us how to see the big picture and to love someone so much it hurts.

And then they learn the word “No.”

It can be a shock to the system when your little angel, who so recently curled up on your lap and thought you were the coolest thing on the planet, suddenly starts rolling their eyes at your requests or talks back with sarcastic comments. How did they learn that kind of sass? What makes them think they can get away with being a smart aleck? The nerve!

This type of behavior is absolutely normal and developmentally appropriate. When they’re being sassy, there’s usually something underneath that, driving that behavior. Kids often use this kind of talk to feel powerful, so it’s a clear indicator that your child is feeling powerless.

Sure, snarky communication is a normal developmental process for kids, but it doesn’t make it easier to swallow. How quickly those warm fuzzy feelings you had about your child can be tainted with annoyance, frustration, and anger. So it is important that we look underneath the surface so we can determine what is driving the behavior so we can determine the best way to respond.

Five Solutions for Sassy Back Talk

  1. Be a detective.

    First, identify how you feel. Ask yourself, “What is this bringing up for me right now?” If you feel an overwhelming sense of anger, acknowledge it, but don’t let it dictate your discussion. Or if you feel the impulse to “be the boss,” it’s a good indicator that you feel like you’re losing control. This is a good time to take a breath and look at the bigger picture.

    Then, assess how your child feels.

    Many parents fall into knee-jerk reactions to what their child is doing rather than why their child is doing and thus the behavior continues.

    Instead of getting caught up in your own frustrations, learn what your child’s point of view is. Ask warmly, “What’s going on, honey?” or for younger kids, closed-ended questions like, “Do you feel frustrated?” “Do you feel like you’ve been bossed around all day, or do you need some attention right now?”

    Most importantly, don’t tell your child how they feel—it’s not helpful and can lead to more resistance.

  2. Respond with empathy.

    Kids don’t make the choice, ‘I’m going to be a smart aleck right now to see what happens’—that behavior is driven by their needs and emotions. They’re just being reactive to their emotional state without knowing why.

    So once you uncover those needs and emotions, respond to them with warmth and understanding, while setting clear expectations for behavior. This might sound something like, “Wow, you sound really frustrated that you cannot have your ice cream before dinner. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s not okay to roll your eyes and talk to me like that.”

    Then you can compassionately engage your child in problem-solving and finding other ways to get their needs met. If your child is acting out with snotty remarks, and you’ve determined they just need your attention, offer them alternatives. “Remember when I was on the phone yesterday and you asked me to play Legos with you? What was that thing you said that worked so well?” or “What’s another way you can get my attention?” or even, “You know, when I was a kid, here’s what I did to get my dad’s attention, and it worked!”

  3. Use enforceable statements.

    Have you ever been out to eat and your child made a scene? If you’re like most parents, you may have gone immediately for the big guns: “If you don’t cut it out, we’re going home.”

    Did they cut it out? Likely not. Did you go home? Likely not.

    Coming right out of the gate with a threat doesn’t always work with children because it doesn’t address their need behind the misbehavior. It just tells them they need to behave in a different way, and their needs may never get met. Not a fun prospect, is it?

    And worse, if you don’t follow through, your child will learn you don’t actually mean what you say, and they will continue to test your boundaries.

    Enforceable Statements are simply you respectfully stating what you’re willing to do or allow. That way if your child continues to be a smart aleck, they learn this is not an effective way of getting a parent to do what you want them to do.

    This may sound something like, “I’m happy to talk with you when you stop rolling your eyes,” or, “I’m here for you, and we can talk more when your tone of voice sounds more like mine.”

  4. Give limited choices.

    Giving kids some control can help to avoid those misbehaviors in the first place. One way of sharing control with children is by offering limited choices. Some examples might sound like: “You need to clean your room now: do you want to start with the puzzle or with the stuffed animals?” or “Do you want me to help you clean up, or do you want to do it by yourself?” or “Do you want listen to music or sing the clean up song while putting toys away?”

    These may sound like trifles to an adult, but to a young child who has little to no control over their lives it can make a huge difference in their sense of autonomy and freedom.

    Of course, don’t offer options you’re not willing to follow through on. Remember the restaurant example? If you say, “Either shape up right now or we’re going home,” then you better leave if they don’t change their behavior. Be calm, firm and offer limited choices as often as you can.

  5. Model respectful communication.

    Most of all, walk your talk. If your child hears you respond to your partner with sarcasm and snark, or even hears you speaking ill of a cashier after you’ve already left the store, they will learn that it’s situationally acceptable to be snarky.

    It’s unrealistic to have expectations that your child will be respectful and polite if you are not respectful and polite. Nothing will corrode your credibility faster than when you try to demand respectful communication from them. “But you roll your eyes at Dad all the time! Why is it so bad when I grumble at you?”

    Be sure you’re modelling the type of behavior and communication style you want to see from your children. Feeling resentful toward your partner? Talk about it with them earnestly, without a snotty tone. Had a hard day at work? Avoid badmouthing your boss while your kids are in earshot.

It may not come naturally at first, but putting effort into understanding and directing your children’s communication will certainly nurture your relationship with them, their development and relationships. And as much as you can, don’t take the scoffs and eye-rolls personally.

 

Need a cheat sheet to remember all this? Click here.

 

 

 

 

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About the Author: Melissa Benaroya

Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education!

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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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