Back Talk

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by Jane Nelsen



Mrs. Henderson told her son, Jon, for the third time that evening, “You had better do your homework before it gets too late."

Jon shot back, “If it is so important to you, why don’t you do it!”

Mrs. Henderson was shocked. After all, she was only trying to help. She reacted by saying, “Don’t talk to me that way, young man. I’m your mother.”

Jon reacted right back, “Well, don’t talk to me that way. I’m your son.”

At this point Mrs. Henderson shouted; “Go to your room right now. You are grounded until you can learn to be respectful.”

Jon shouted back, “Fine,” as he stomped off to his room and slammed the door.

What creates a scene like this? Was Mom modeling respect as she shouted at her son to be respectful? No. Was Jon being disrespectful to his mother? Yes. Was Mom being disrespectful to Jon? Yes. Let me count the ways.

  1. She nagged.
  2. She took control and gave orders (no matter how pleasantly).
  3. She robbed Jon of learning responsibility by taking over the responsibility of his homework.
  4. She didn’t invite Jon to figure out what he wanted and how to get it.
  5. She is not willing to allow him to experience the consequences of his choices—and to learn from them.

Why is it that parents think it is their job to see that homework gets done? Oh, I can hear your objections already: “We can’t just let him fail.” Of course parents don’t want their children to fail. All the more reason to teach children self-discipline, self-control, goal setting, and problem-solving skills instead of trying to control them. All the more reason to communicate WITH children instead of TO them, FOR them, or AT them. How to accomplish respectful communication and help children develop a sense of capability and self-discipline is the focus of Positive Discipline.

For now let's discuss “backtalk” and how to stop “back talking back.” The following suggestions are from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn.


  1. In a calm, respectful voice, tell your child, “If I have ever spoken to you that way, I apologize. I don’t want to hurt you or be hurt by you. Can we start over?”
  2. Count to ten or take some other form of positive time-out so you don’t “backtalk” in reaction. Avoid comebacks such as, “You can’t talk to me that way young lady.”
  3. Use the “back talk” as information (it could tell you that something is amiss) and deal with it after you have both calmed down. Look for places you have been turning issues into power struggles with your child.  
  4. Instead of focusing on the disrespect, focus on the feelings. Say something like, “You are obviously very upset right now. I know it upsets me when you talk that way. Let’s both take some time out to calm down. We can talk later when we feel better. I’d like to hear what you are upset about.
  5. Do not use punishment to “get control.” When you have both calmed down you can work on a respectful solution that works for both of you..
  6. Share your feelings, “I feel very hurt when you talk to me that way. Later I want to talk to you about another way you could tell me what you want or how you feel.”  Or you could say, “Whoa, I wonder if I did something to hurt your feelings, because that certainly hurt mine.”
  7. If you are not too upset, try hugging your child. Sometimes children are not ready to accept a hug at this time. Other times a hug changes the atmosphere for both of you to one of love and respect.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Be willing to take a look at how you might be teaching the very thing you abhor in your child by being disrespectful to her. Have you created an atmosphere of power struggles by being too controlling or too permissive? 
  2. Make sure you do not “set your child up” by making disrespectful demands. Instead of giving orders, create routines together during family meetings.
  3. Instead of saying, “Pick up your shoes,” ask, “What about your shoes?” You will be surprised how much more inviting it is to ask than to tell.
  4. Once you have both calmed down, let her know you love her and would like to work on a respectful solution to what happened. Take responsibility for your part and work on a solution together.
  5. Apologize if you have been disrespectful. “I can see that I was disrespectful when I demanded that you pick up your shoes. How can I ask you to be respectful when I’m not?” Let her know that you can’t “make” her be respectful, but that you will work on being respectful yourself.
  6. Have regular family meetings so family members learn respectful ways of communicating and focusing on solutions.

Life Skills Children can Learn

Children can learn that their parents are willing to take responsibility for their part in an interaction. They can learn that back talk isn’t effective, but that they will have another chance to work on respectful communication.

Teacher Tool in Action

From Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers by Jane Nelsen and Kelly Gfroerer

After a workshop, where we did an experiential activity on understanding the belief behind the behavior, we took a break. An eighth-grade teacher walked back to his classroom to see how the substitute teacher was doing. On his way, he saw two students fighting. When he tried to break up the fight, one of the students said, “F——you.” 

Instead of reacting, the teacher gently touched the student’s arm and said, “I can see how angry you are. Come walk with me.”

The student jerked his arm away but started walking half a step behind. The teacher said, “I’m guessing you are feeling hurt by something. Do you want to talk about it?” 

The student might have felt overwhelmed by this sudden kindness instead of the usual expected punishment. Whatever the reason, he got tears in his eyes and told the teacher how angry (a cover-up for hurt) he felt because of an argument with his brother.

The teacher just listened until the student got it all out and calmed down. Then he said, “Do you know why I knew you were feeling hurt about something? It hurt my feelings when you said, ‘F——you.’ I knew you wouldn’t say that unless you were feeling hurt and needed to strike back at anyone in your path. I’m glad you felt safe talking to me. I’m glad you know I care. Would you be willing to meet with me after school, and we can talk about some ideas that might be helpful to you?”

The teacher told us about this incident when he came back to the workshop. He asked others to brainstorm some ideas for what to say when he met with the student again. The participants came up with several ideas, such as creating an Anger Wheel of Choice, but the idea the teacher liked best was to just spend some time talking with the student about his favorite things to do. He would not even mention the upsetting incident unless the student brought it up first. Focusing on what was positive in the student’s life would help him see that he had the power to separate himself from his brother’s taunting. This teacher had a deep understanding of the power of encouragement (through spending special time with this student) to motivate behavior change. 

Online Learning

Positive Discipline offers online learning options for parents, teachers, and parent educators. Learn in the comfort of your own home and at your own pace. You have unlimited access to our online streaming programs, so you can watch and re-watch the videos as often as you like.