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.

 

 

 

 

[irp posts=”2673″ name=”Helping Kids Navigate Playground Politics (by Melissa Benaroya)”]


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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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