What Should I Do When My Child Talks Back?

Today's question comes from K.P. in California, USA.


Q: "I have a 2-year-old at home and we have been using time-outs as our primary discipline method. Recently, he has started yelling or talking back sometimes when we scold him for things and I'm not always sure how to address it. Should I ignore the behavior or give him a time-out when he yells or talks back? Also, sometimes he yells while he's in his time-out. How do I discipline the yelling if he's doing it while he's already on time-out for something else?"


A: Hi K.P.! Thanks so much for reaching out. So many parents ask me these same questions in the therapy room, so you are not alone. You've asked me 2 questions, so let's look at them one at a time:


1. Should you discipline "yelling" or "talking back" behaviors?

2. What should you do when your child is yelling/talking back while already being disciplined?


Let's start by saying that the answer to these questions will largely depend on your child's developmental age. So, for all the readers out there who have older children engaging in these similar behaviors, the answer for you will be slightly different. You can use the same general idea that I'm going to share in this post, but you'll need to tweak it to take into account your child's maturity and developmental stage.


We could go into a huge discussion on why these behaviors emerge in kids. All children, no matter how well disciplined, are going to test the limits by yelling and talking back. We see these behaviors emerge in the Terrible Two's and, if managed correctly, they will subside and won't reappear again until the Preteen/Adolescent years. The key here is to manage theses behaviors correctly. If not, your child will leave the Terrible Two's and still be a little tyrant.


This leads us then to your first question: Should I discipline "yelling" and "talking back" behaviors? The answer is YES.


Disciplining Your Child When They Yell or Talk Back


Most parents don't like being yelled at or being spoken back to. For most individuals, it's considered rude and disrespectful. The larger truth is that your child can't get into the habit of yelling at authority figures either. This behavior will only lead to them getting into trouble at school, lose a job for insubordination, and even lose friendships or support people in their lives. When our kids are little, we don't think much about how their little toddler behaviors can spiral out of control and affect their adult lives.


The reality is, the backbone of my mental health practice is built off of kids whose behaviors spiraled out control and have escalated to significantly impact their lives and the lives of their families. It can be hilarious to watch our young kids spout off their anger. I know it makes me laugh every time. But the truth is that this behavior must be managed in order to ensure that it doesn't negatively impact them in the future. And this is where most parents go wrong....


I commonly hear things like, "Well he's only 2. This is normal," and that statement isn't wrong. Temper tantrums are very normal for 2-year-olds, but this doesn't mean you don't discipline it. Why? Because kids don't know what they don't know. They don't know that a temper tantrum is not the appropriate way to express themselves. So, if you don't discipline the behavior, they never learn a more appropriate way to manage themselves. And this is how you end up with a kid who develops a bad reputation for being rude, bratty, and out-of-control. No parent wants that.


So, in short, the answer to your first question is YES, you do want to discipline these behaviors. As always, if your little guy yells at you, give him a firm warning and be specific.


Example: "Do not yell at Mommy. That is very rude and inappropriate. If you yell at me again, you will get a time-out."


Talking back is a little harder to discipline with a 2-year-old because they don't really comprehend the idea of "talking back." My recommendation would be to tackle the yelling first. Talking back, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing. We can see that this is the child's attempt to argue their point or express their point of view. As a mom and as a therapist, I don't have an issue with this as long as it is done respectfully.


To understand this fine line a bit better, let's look at an example. Let's say you tell your son to go to bed and he talks back and yells, "No! I don't want to go to bed! YOU go to bed!" This is going to get you all fired up as a parent. But why? Most likely it's because it feels rude, defiant, and mildly aggressive.


If we take this same scenario and get rid of the yelling, it sounds a lot better. It sounds more like your child is trying to negotiate with you, or perhaps like complaining or whining behavior. But that's far better than rude, defiant, and aggressive. He's still technically "talking back," but as a parent, you are no longer upset by it. Why does the absence of "yelling" make such a huge difference?


It all comes down to how we communicate with one another. Communication relies on verbal and non-verbal cues. We take in everything from words, context, tone, volume, facial expressions, and bodily gestures to understand what is being communicated to us and how to interpret that communication. These are all clues that help us interpret the other person's emotions, thoughts, and intentions in their communication to us. Because of this, simply turning down the volume of your son's communication (ie. going from yelling to talking) changes the overall flavor of his communication to you.


So, taking in your son's developmental stage, I recommend you discipline the yelling first. See how that goes. I think you'll find that the "talking back" becomes less of an issue then. If you find that you still need help with the talking-back in the future, just send me another question, and I'd be happy to help.


When Your Child is Yelling During Disciplinary Sessions


Time to take a look at your second question: What should you do when your child is yelling/talking back while already being disciplined?


Once again, for older children, the answer to this question is different, but for a toddler, the simple answer is IGNORE. In therapy, we teach something called Active Ignoring to parents. Simply put, it means ignoring behaviors that are not a high risk in order to show the child that the behavior doesn't get attention. That may sound confusing so let's look at this a little closer.


Many kids engage in intentional misbehavior. This means that they purposefully misbehave in order to force the caregiver to reprimand them. Why would any kid do that?!?


Over the course of their young lives, many kids quickly figure out that they get more attention from their parents when they misbehave than when they are well behaved. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is nonetheless true, and we are ALL guilty of it (myself included).


Think about this closely... if your child is quietly and nicely playing by themselves with a toy, you'll most certainly take advantage of it and try to get as many household chores done as you can. But the second your child starts to play with your glassware, starts breaking something, or starts yelling at you, you'll stop whatever you are doing to address the behavior. By doing this, you just taught your child that:


playing quietly = no attention

misbehaving = attention


Play this same scenario out over the course of days, weeks, months, and years, and you can bet that your child starts to engage in intentional misbehavior in order to gain your attention. It comes down to this simple fact:


Our children would much rather have our negative attention than no attention at all.


Parenting is hard, isn't it? And sometimes it feels like we can't get anything right! But don't worry, we are all in this boat together. Even more uplifting is that there are so many tricks you can learn so that you can evolve into the best parent you can be! I'm going to teach you a simple trick you can begin doing right now that will help you combat intentional misbehavior (a.k.a. negative attention-seeking behavior). It's incredibly simple, but it works:


Praise your child whenever they behave.


That's it! Praise! Next time they are playing quietly, take 1 minute to praise them for it. Highlight how much you love that they are playing so nicely and quietly so that you can get some work done. Praise the next time they accept the time-out gracefully. Praise them when they take their medication without complaining. Praise, praise, praise! It's so easy, it doesn't cost a penny, and it goes a long way to combat intentional misbehavior. It may not completely eliminate it, but it will certainly help in reducing it.


Now, let's go back to your son yelling while in time-out. My recommendation to you is to ignore him while he is doing this behavior. Essentially, he's engaging in intentional misbehavior, and he's trying to get you to focus on him. Ignoring the behavior shows him that yelling will not work in giving him the thing he wants so much... your attention.


If the time-out is over, and he's still yelling, calmly inform him that his time-out is over and that he can leave his time-out spot once he has calmed down and is no longer yelling. This places the power and control in his own hands. Essentially, he has control over how much longer he stays in his time-out spot. You may say something like:


"Your time-out is over. When you calm down and stop yelling, you can come out."


Once he calms down and is no longer yelling, you can let him out of his time-out spot. Follow up the time-out with a brief discussion about why he was placed in time-out to begin with and what he needs to do differently next time. Also discuss that yelling at you is not an appropriate way to express his anger, and that next time, you would like him to use his words.


Over time, your son will begin to see that yelling while on time-out does nothing to help his situation, and the behavior will begin to subside. Be sure to praise him whenever he does his time-out gracefully. This will help to discourage yelling during time-outs and re-enforce accepting his time-outs politely.


Hopefully that was helpful in helping you know how to manage these situations with your toddler. As I mentioned previously, for older children, you will follow a similar plan with a few deviations. This is because we need to take into account the developmental level of an older child and apply appropriate consequences for this behavior.


If you have any questions or need clarification on anything, feel free to reach out to me. I'm always happy to help!


With that said, Happy Parenting K.P.!



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