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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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