Scuttling the sass and buttoning up the backtalk


Dear Adele,

Our six-year-old has recently become quite sassy! When things don’t go his way and we have to speak to him, he seems to come back at us with a proliferation of backtalk. We believe in respectful communication and need some ideas on how to end this. Help is requested, please!

Barraged with Backtalk


Dear Barraged with Backtalk,

Welcome to another common parenting problem in our culture. You need only watch a few family sitcoms to see how prevalent this problem is. Regardless of the humour that the writers are able to integrate into the scripts with backtalk and sassiness, in real life parenting situations, it does the children no favour to allow insolence, and makes adults dislike children who display it. Best to nip it in the bud. I have a few ideas for you.

The first thing that is necessary is to comprehend the reason for the backtalk. This will be helpful in figuring out how to deal with it. Try to understand that backtalk goes along with seeking independence and the normal stages of growing up in our culture. Children are trying to feel out their sense of personal power and control. If we are regularly in charge and telling them how to do everything, backtalk and sassiness can be the result. Kids want to fight back, test the limits and see what kind of reaction they can get out of you. If you get the picture, the following tips will be easier to implement in scuttling the sassiness and buttoning up the backtalk.

Try to meet your child’s need for personal power. It is important to do this in as many ways as you can, because when the child’s need for power is not met, he will try to gain control with his mouth. The result is a disrespectful communication tone commonly referred to as sassiness, lip or backtalk. Try to give your child opportunities to express his independence in what clothes he wears, in how he styles his hair and in what family activities are planned.  Giving your child positive power will reduce his need to seize power with cheekiness and the less upset you will be.

According to Amy McCready in ‘Five steps to put the brakes on backtalk’, “parents unknowingly contribute to the power struggles that produce backtalk by bossing kids around too frequently.” Children find it tiring and annoying to be bossed around. Amy suggests you try to “minimize ordering, correcting, and directing the kids” and your partner. If you give fewer orders and engage more, cooperation should be increased and sassiness diminished.

In addition to this intervention, Amy McCready reinforces the need for structure and routine with children. She says it is important to set crystal clear, consistent expectations and perspicuous consequences. If you stick to the limits, backtalk should be reduced because” backtalk is simply pushback to an expectation that hasn’t been clearly outlined or enforced.”

Another important strategy is to validate your child. Everyone needs attention and a feeling that he/she belongs and is important and significant. You can do this by trying to give your child time with undivided attention. Psychologists often suggest parents spend ‘Special Time’ with their child. This is time of 10 to 20 minutes duration each day. It is concentrated child centered, one on one time, in which the child chooses the activity. It is uninterrupted and consistently kept daily, as parent and child time together. Proponents suggest you call this time by a special meaningful name such as ‘Daddy and me time.’ They say it puts deposits in the child’s emotional bank and sends a message to the child that you are interested in him/her. At the conclusion of the special time, it is important to tell the child how much you enjoyed spending time with him/her. These kinds of interactions have been shown to reduce power struggles and decrease backtalk.

Another idea for ending the backtalk is to offer the child verbal validation of what you observe and hear. You say what you observe and hear. Use active listening techniques to connect with the child. In this way, the child feels heard and understood. Try ending these statements with “You want?” and the child should have an opportunity to express what is causing him his aggravation.

A final idea comes from a video entitled ‘Stop kids talking back with this one easy trick’. It suggests that you do not react to sassy disrespectful backtalk. Simply look the child in the eye, ignore what they have said and give no response. Then walk away and revisit the disrespect later. When there is no one there to fight with, the power struggle cannot exist. When you do come back to it later in the day, use a positive ‘I’ statement like “I feel disrespected when you speak that way. When I hear that tone, I walk away. We can share our thoughts and feelings when you speak respectfully.”

I hope these tips have been helpful to you Barraged with Backtalk. You will be assisting your child immensely by teaching him to communicate respectfully with people of all kinds, especially his parents.

I will conclude with a few inspiring quotations on respectful communication:

When someone is nasty or treats you poorly, don’t take it personally. It says nothing about you but a lot about them. — Unknown

A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone.— Billy Graham                                                                                                          

Parents must get across the idea that’ I love you always but sometimes I do not love your behaviour’. — Amy Vanderbilt

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.