Are you tired of disrespectful talk from your kids? Do your children respond with eye-rolling and sarcasm to everything you say? Most—if not all—kids go through phases when they are sassy, mouthy, or disrespectful. As a parent, it’s hard to know when to let it slide—and when to address the problem. James Lehman explains where to draw the line—and tells you how you can manage sassy talk in your home.
Parents often ask me, “How do you differentiate between disrespectful, sassy or ‘fresh’ language and abusive language?” I believe these behaviors are found on a continuum—let’s call it the “Inappropriate Verbal Response Continuum.” They are triggered by your child’s emotions: primarily frustration, anger and a need to get back at others when he thinks something is unfair. On one end of the continuum is abuse. The intent of abusive language is generally a personal attack upon another person. It’s meant to hurt the other person and make them feel small and afraid. Verbal abuse often includes foul language and disturbing threats of violence designed to intimidate the other person to get them to give in.
Kids who use abusive language and behavior want to attack you so that they can control you. They don't care about consequences; they're not intimidated by them. Abusive behavior has to be handled very clearly and sternly. (I won’t be addressing verbally abusive attacks in this article. If your child’s behavior is verging on—or has already entered into the verbal abuse stage, please read “Kids Who Are Verbally Abusive: The Creation of a Defiant Child” and “How to Stop Threats and Verbal Abuse” in EP.)
Responding to Disrespectful Comments
Why do kids talk to adults in disrespectful ways? I believe children and teens do a lot of things because they don't know how to express emotions appropriately. They learn a lot from watching other kids and people around them. If your daughter is frustrated and doesn't know how to show it, and she sees somebody else roll their eyes and make a face, she’ll absorb that lesson without even thinking about it. Then the next time she’s frustrated at home, she’ll roll her eyes and make a face at you. If she gets a reaction, that will often just reinforce the behavior, because she knows she’s gotten to you. Don’t kid yourself: if you threaten your child by saying, “Don't do that to me, young lady, or you'll be grounded,” that will only make her do it more.
When my son was in middle school, for some reason he went through a period where he said, “Oh, sure,” to everything in a sarcastic way. I responded to him once or twice by saying, “Is something wrong? Why are you using that tone with me?” And he said, “What tone? I don't know what you mean.” I said, “I just don't like the way you're talking to me; try to talk better.” His answer? “Oh, sure.” I became a little frustrated, but I also knew better than to show it. I didn't want to empower that behavior—or necessarily stifle it. Instead, my wife and I allied ourselves together and were able to laugh it off; eventually, it wore itself out.
And that's the important thing to remember here. If you respond to mildly annoying behavior in a strong way repeatedly, you give it power and strength. As your child gets into adolescence, he’ll start to find ways to push your buttons. When you confront him, he'll say very innocently, “What did I say? What did I do?”
I personally think that the less you challenge it, the less you give it power. Remember, the less power you give it, the more it's going to die its natural death. That process is called “extinction.” If you don't respond to a behavior and give it power, the more likely that it will become extinct; it's going to die out like the dinosaurs. But if you feed the behavior and play with it, you’ll only nurture the disrespect. In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is challenge it inconsistently: let’s say sometimes you let it slide and then sometimes you confront your child. When you do that, those behaviors tend to become more entrenched. I understand that many times it's not easy to ignore mildly disrespectful behavior. That’s why I think it’s helpful if you can talk to your spouse, a friend or relative about it.
How to Respond to Sarcasm
In the middle of the inappropriate verbal response continuum is sarcasm. Kids generally manifest this in two ways. They either make sarcastic comments when they’re feeling like they’re under pressure, or they use chronic sarcasm as a way to manage their angry feelings safely. By “safely” I mean it’s safer to show their anger through sarcasm than it is through any other means they’ve learned.
Usually sarcasm is learned and modeled by adults, and so part of the response to sarcasm in kids is for the adults to speak differently. Many times when adults are angry at their kid’s performance, they make sarcastic comments. These comments are hurtful and kids develop a defense to that by becoming sarcastic themselves. You’ll see kids who are really cynical and sarcastic using that language in all areas of their life. Its function is to help them deflect any blame while downloading a piece of anger onto the person who’s the target.
By the way, I like it when comedians use sarcastic humor, but not when a child or adult talks to me that way, because it’s belittling. That feeling cuts down on communication. All these mechanisms—sarcasm, disrespect, sassy talk—curtail communication. When you see this behavior, you have to ask yourself, “What’s being communicated that’s making my child respond that way?” It’s usually not hard to discover what your child is threatened by that leads to sarcasm. Sometimes it’s a secret, sometimes it’s a task he hasn’t completed, and sometimes it’s a power struggle. Whatever it is, once you’ve identified it, it becomes much easier to defuse. “Don’t be sarcastic” is an appropriate thing to say. A really good question to ask is, “How come you get sarcastic whenever we talk about your history homework?” It’s effective because it both identifies the issue and puts your child on the spot.
A very powerful way to respond to sarcasm is to simply say, “Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it,” and turn around and walk away. That way, you’re taking all the power out of the room with you. If you argue or try to make a point, you’re giving your child more power. Another effective way of managing it is to say, “Why do you get sarcastic when I ask you about homework?” If your child says, “I don’t get sarcastic when I talk about homework,” then say, “Fine, then let’s keep going. I expect you not to be sarcastic.” If, on the other hand, your child says, "I get sarcastic because you don’t understand,” you can say, “It’s your job to make me understand. And sarcasm doesn’t help.”
When Your Child Uses Sarcasm with Siblings
When your kids use this kind of language with each other, I know it’s hard as a parent to stay out of it—but you may be surprised to hear that I think you really have to try. It’s important for all your kids to learn how to stand up for themselves. Believe me, they're going to get it in the schoolyard, on the school bus, or in the classroom no matter what. That doesn't make it right and it doesn't make it good. But the bottom line is that they need to build up a callous to these kinds of comments. Think of it this way: at the beginning of the summer, using a shovel hurts. You get blisters, and your hands are sore and tender. After awhile, they get calloused and then they don't hurt anymore. That's exactly what you want your kids to do with mildly sarcastic comments.
When something rubs your child the wrong way, try to not jump in there unless something is being said that’s really abusive, disgusting or demeaning. If that’s happening and your child escalates, intervene immediately and pull that child aside. Give him a choice of two things at that time: to either change his language, or be removed from the group. Calling your child aside is important because often the embarrassment being corrected in front of another kid or children can cause him to escalate even further. If he does, you’ll need to deal with it, but you don't want to promote the likelihood of that happening in the first place. Is it the end of the world if you give your child a consequence in front of the other kids? No, but I think those things are best dealt with privately. If your goal is to get him to change his behavior, separating him from others gives him a better chance of hearing what you’re saying.
“Duh! Nice one, Mom.”
It’s easy and natural to become irritated when your kid says, “Nice one, Mom,” or “Duh.” This is where you have to draw the line between what kind of disrespect requires your attention and what doesn't. I think that things that are not a personal attack or which are not meant to demean you can be handled by just trying to ignore them. “Planned ignoring” is the key here. Planned ignoring is the concept where you decide consciously to ignore attention-seeking behaviors as long as they’re not overtly harmful or abusive to others.
This is tricky, because there are also terms which might be considered mild by some, but which are actually put downs that I believe you need to address. When your child says, “That's stupid,” to you, make no mistake—he means you're stupid. And by the way, when you tell your child “That's stupid” and he says, “Don't call me stupid,” I don’t think you should try to play some word game with him. If you say, “Well, I didn't say you were stupid, I said the behavior was stupid,” your child is going to see right through that. My advice is, don't use the word “stupid” in a sentence when you're dealing with your child unless you want him to feel stupid. There are plenty of other words that are not demeaning. And by the same token, if your child says, “That's stupid,” you don’t have to say, “Are you calling me stupid?” You can say very clearly, “There's no name calling around this house.” I believe there should be a consequence for name calling. Set limits on it very clearly and hold your child accountable. Every time he says the word “stupid,” to someone in the family, for example, he goes to bed 15 minutes earlier or has 15 minutes less TV time. He should be held accountable from the get go.
When Your Child Says, “Do It Yourself.”
When you ask your child to do something, and he comes back with “Do it yourself,” I think your response should be very clear: “I'm not going to do it myself. I told you to do it, and you will have the following consequence until you do it.” For younger kids, you might take away a toy until they’ve complied. For older kids, you might take away video games, TV, their cell phone or iPod. In the Total Transformation Program, I call this technique, “Stop the Show.”
If your child gets rude and says, “I'm not going to do it; this isn’t my chore,” you can say, “Well, I asked you to do it and I want you to do it now.” Don't get into whose chore it is. If the noncompliance persists, then the show stops. In other words, whatever your child is doing is over for the time being. Have your child take a seat in his room without any kind of stimulation around like music or a computer. Understand that when kids get over-stimulated, they get stuck. So the first step in getting them “unstuck” is to avoid stimulating them by demanding things. Rather, take away all the stimuli that you can. Sending them to their rooms and shutting off electronics helps. Research shows that after three minutes with no stimulation, your child's body slows down. So wait for a few minutes, and then go in and say, “Let's talk about this.” Don't say, “Do you want to talk about it?” Sometimes we ask kids questions when we don't really want them to make a decision. So try saying, “Let's talk about this. I asked you to mow the lawn. You won’t be able to come out of your room until you agree to do it. Would you like to do it now or do you want to stay in your room a little longer?” And if he says, “No, I’m not doing it,” then say, “Okay, let me know when you’re ready,” and leave the room. If he wants his privileges back, he will comply eventually.
When Kids Are Fresh in Public
These days, adolescents have less fear of being sassy, mouthy or disrespectful to their parents and other adults in public. I think if they're acting that way in public, then you can correct them in public. Say, “Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it.” If the rude attitude doesn't stop, then take them to the car.
If your child is being smart alecky to other adults, you can use the same technique. Say “Don't talk to Mrs. Smith that way, I don't like it.” If your child persists, you can say, “Let's go. Goodbye, Mrs. Smith.” Take your child and leave. By the way, if it's another parent's child being rude to you, I still think you can say, “Don't talk to me that way Tommy, I don't like it.” Then turn away from him. Use very simple, matter-of-fact behavior. Have a serious look on your face; you don't have to look mean or angry, but don't look like you're cracking a joke either.
By the way, I don't believe in giving your child a second or third chance when he’s nasty or rude to you. I think this creates bad habits in kids. From the time you start giving him chances, your child will say to himself, “Well, the first one is free, so I won’t get in trouble if I call my mom a name.” I know it may be heartbreaking at first not to give your child a second chance, but that's the best way for him to learn.
James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."