My Child and Back Talk : What Should I Do?

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For any parent, having a child who is in the habit of challenging authority can be one of the hardest things to cope with. While many people attribute this early behavior to attention seeking, entitlement, or even just being rude, it can develop into a more serious condition as time goes on, known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). What should you do if your child uses back talk on you, the parent?

By understanding this disorder, and learning the dos and don’ts of trying to manage a child who engages in back talk, you can learn how to help you child develop into a socially balanced individual.

Understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder

While back talk and challenging authority are some of the most noticeable symptoms of ODD, there is a lot more to look for and understand about this behavior in children.

Common Symptoms of ODD

Many specialists have taken to studying this disorder, and have come up with a list of the common indicators to look out for in your child’s behavior. Disabled World, a website dedicated to the understanding of both physical and mental disorders, offers some common symptoms:

  • “Children with ODD show a pattern of stubbornness and aversion to authority. They frequently test parents’ and teachers’ limits, even in early childhood.”
  • “Oppositional defiant children show a consistent pattern of refusing to follow commands or requests by adults.”
  • “These children repeatedly lose their temper, argue with adults, and refuse to comply with rules and directions.”
  • “They are easily annoyed and blame others for their mistakes.”
  • They commonly incite parents and other family members to fight with one and other rather than focus on the child, who is the source of the problem.
  • “Children who have ODD are often disobedient. They are easily angered and may seem to be angry most of the time.”
  • “Very young children with the disorder will throw temper tantrums that last for 30 minutes or longer, over seemingly trivial matters.”
  • “Children with ODD consistently dawdle and procrastinate.”
  • “They claim to forget or fail to hear and, as a result, are often referred for hearing evaluations, only to be found to have normal hearing.”

An article on Empowering Parents, written by Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner, adds a few more to the list:

  • “Does it ever feel like your child or teenager has an answer for everything—and usually takes the exact opposite position on what you’ve just said? Many kids struggle with authority, and have trouble following limits or rules, complying with requests and/or are generally disrespectful to others in society.”
  • “Some wear their defiance on their sleeves and are angry in their refusal (How dare you tell me what to do?!).”
  • “Others are more subtle and simply ‘dig their heels in.’”

As many children do much more than talk back, it is easy to identify this disorder. However, some researchers have attempted to discern the root causes for this behavior.

Possible Explanations for Back Talk and Defiant Behavior

While reading these possible explanations, it is important to remember that each situation is different, and that your child might not necessarily feel that way. Nevertheless, it is important to gain insight into our children’s attitudes, and walk a mile in their shoes.

Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner discuss some possible reasons for defiant behavior:

  • “Why do some kids fight so hard against authority, as if giving up control is equal to drowning? Possibly because that’s exactly how it feels to them. We often look into the why in order to figure out how to change the behavior. Personality can certainly play a role – some individuals hate rules and authority from a very young age and for the rest of their lives. Other factors can include depression, anxiety, ADHD or other conditions that may lead to developing undesirable attitudes.”
  • “In some cases, we may never be able to determine exactly why a child is making certain choices or behaving a certain way. Adults often spend a great deal of time trying to identify potential triggers to a child’s defiance. In fact, there may be multiple triggers; being told ‘no,’ facing a limit or rule, or feeling jealous or uncomfortable can certainly contribute to defiant behavior.”

It may also be possible that only one of your children has the actual mental disorder, and the others are simply following suit by engaging in back talk. Disabled World states that:

“If an older child in the family continually overrides their parents’ parental authority by attempting to control and manipulate how younger family members act and behave, it is possible that this older child also suffers from ODD and has ‘passed down’ their mannerism to the younger children. This older child is of the mistaken belief that he/she is the head of the family as he/she has already manipulated their parents to gain control, and now wishes to exert his/her authority on their younger siblings who, in turn, will grow up thinking this is ‘normal’ behavior and act accordingly.”

The possible causes for back talk and ODD are limitless, as are the possible situations of each child. However, there are some common things you should avoid when dealing with a child who has problems with authority.

The Don’ts of Managing a Child with ODD

Whether it is a teenager or a 3-year-old talking back, it is important to make sure you avoid interacting with your child in a detrimental way. Keep an eye out for the following things in your own parenting style:

Avoid Falling into Verbal Traps

Children who have ODD or who have made a habit of back talking are gifted at speaking, often using their intelligence to have things their way. When interacting with them, you have to be very careful about where the conversation goes.

Abraham and Studaker-Cordner warn of two of the common verbal traps which children with ODD will attempt to lay:

  • The Trap of Excuses and Blame: “When an issue comes up with your child, stay focused on the topic – your child’s behavior and the potential consequences. For example, your child might say, ‘I didn’t do my homework because the teacher didn’t explain what we were supposed to do.’ He blames his refusal to do homework on his teacher, and says the teacher doesn’t treat him fairly in class. Our advice to his parent: Try not to get caught up in the idea that Johnny’s teacher ‘isn’t fair.’ Stay focused on the behavior (Johnny’s refusal to do his work) and the potential consequences (failing his class).”
  • Emotional Traps: “It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of your child’s defiance. They’re upset, you’re upset and sometimes teachers or other adults are upset. Again, it takes the focus off the topic at hand. Don’t personalize what your child is saying or doing—just stay as objective as you can and focus on the matter at hand.”

Remember: if a child can get you angry, you are less likely to think straight and be able to guide them in the way they need to go.

Do Not Hand Control over to Your Child

A child with ODD symptoms thinks that they are in control of the family; as they have got their way before, and plan to do so again. You must avoid relinquishing control over the rules and consequences. Disabled World has a few scenarios that you should avoid to prevent the escalation of a child’s ODD:

  • “Do not play ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ with the child – ‘If you clean your room, you can go to the movies tonight.’ Too many parents use this approach to get the child to do something, thus bargaining becomes a way of life. The parent is constantly caught in the struggle to make a deal. Instead, set predetermined consequences to your child’s actions and apply intermittent reinforcement for good behavior. A reinforcer could be anything the child likes or desires, which could motivate the child to behave better, such as praise, spending quality time together, or going to a movie – to name a few. Once you have issued a rule or instruction, you shouldn’t back down. The primary rule is that the child must obey the parent!”

The distinction here is that rather than offering a reward for obedience, you as the parent should set up rules and consequences for breaking them. However, when you observe them behaving in a positive way of their own volition, then you should reward them from time to time so as to affirm their good behavior.

  • “Do NOT allow electronics to become a babysitter for your child. Parents often wonder how to take TV privileges from one of their children; if they have to shut off the TV, the other children will be punished. That’s true. Do not shut the TV off because one child is restricted. That punishes everyone. Watch TV as usual, and the child who is being punished should go to another room that has no TV or games. That’s the true punishment. If no one can watch TV because he/she is not allowed to, you are giving your child control over the entire family.”

The Dos of Managing A Child with ODD

Just as there are things you should not do when managing children who talk back, so too are there things which you should endeavor to do and maintain in your interactions with your children.

Consistency Is the Key

Since children are more observant than anyone gives them credit for, they will pick up on the fact that you do not always enforce the rules in the same ways. An article reviewed by D’Arcy Lyness, PhD, on Kidshealth.org asserts the importance of maintaining consistency in discipline with back talk, or any disobedience:

“When it comes to discipline, it’s important to be consistent. Parents who don’t stick to the rules and consequences they set up don’t have kids who do either. For example, if you tell your toddler that a timeout is the repercussion for bad behavior, be sure to enforce it. Only issue warnings for things that you can follow through on. Empty threats undermine your authority.”

Disabled World agrees with this:

“Apply established consequences immediately, fairly and consistently. Be consistent and set down specific rules as changing the rules mid-stream can be confusing to the ODD child. Be sure that BOTH parents are on-board with the same rules.”

By keeping things consistent, you limit the ways that your child can attempt to manipulate you or regain control, as both parents are in agreement, and the rules stay the same every time without exception.

Establish Limitations and Punishments

Once you have the idea of consistency ingrained in your parenting style, then you must establish the rules. These should be both fair and inclusive.

These are some excellent suggestions from Disabled World:

  • “Limit the time children can watch television, play video games or listen to music. Sticking to these rules allows time for the children to think on their own and to use their creativity.”
  • “Only punish the child that deserves punishing. Think about how the punishment will affect you and the rest of the family. If you have a child who likes to control you or others in the family, choose his/her punishments carefully. Be sure that the punishment ONLY affects the child who misbehaved and not anyone else.
  • Do not say, ‘We are not going until you clean your room’. If you are going somewhere he wants to go, this threat may work. If he does not want to go, you have just given the child a lot of power. No one can go until the room is clean. You are giving this child control over the entire family! What do you do with a child who is not permitted to go somewhere with the rest of the family? Get a baby-sitter and then go and have a good time. Your child will learn that his misbehavior will not prevent the family from having fun.”
  • “Do explain why you are punishing the child. Children need not only to understand what they did wrong but why it was wrong and what they should have done right. This also needs to be conveyed to them in a way that they will grasp, allowing the child to grow, and not just stop the immediate behavior that is in front of you.”

So There You Have It

While following this advice in dealing with your children and their back talk, remember to always, always, show them plenty of love and affection, even when it is difficult. After all, they are your children, and you are the main influence that plays the biggest role in shaping them into their future selves.

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