Say Whaat?

Everyone has a pet peeve. Mine is this: Whateverrrrr! One word can send needles up the spine. One word can start the argument of the century. I realize there are much worse things a teen can say, but for some reason "whateverrrrr" says it all for me. It means, "I don't care what you think - you just don't get it - get out of my face" all in one fell swoop. This issue of teens and back talk is nothing new. Parents of yesteryear actually had the right idea when they washed mouths out with soap. Nowadays, you'd be arrested for endangering your teen's welfare.

So what do we parents do about these smart mouths? Some let it go and say they have more serious things to worry about, such as drinking, drugs, and premarital sex. Others don't put up with it. For me, back talk is a sign of disrespect and should be handled as such. Teens should be taught how to speak up for themselves and to voice their opinions, but there is an appropriate way of doing so.

Keep Back Talk in Perspective

Does back talk really start in the teens? What about when you asked your two-year-old to pick up his toys and he said, "No!" and sneered at you. Although back talk is not strictly a teen phenomenon, it does seem to happen more often and with more disdain than when our kids were young. Parents have different opinions about where to draw the line; however, most feel that outright rudeness should not be tolerated.

Just like toddlers, teenagers are struggling to become independent from their parents. That independence is necessary as they approach adulthood. Dr. Alec L. Miller, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York, explains, "Teens are striving to become more autonomous. To do so, requires them to assert their own needs and wishes, even when those wishes are not in the context of good judgment and even when they are in direct conflict with the parents' wishes."

Teens like to argue. As long as it is respectful arguing, parents should learn to embrace this. There are those times, however, when a sharp tongue rears its ugly head. Then, it's time to put the clamps on.

Don't Get Bent out of Shape

How do parents get their teens to back off the snide back talk? Parents should remember that they are the authority in the household. A teen who talks rudely to a parent once or twice and gets away with it will continue the behavior, and it will progressively get worse. If a teen's language or attitude is inappropriate, there should be consequences. Parents should also try to remain calm even if their teen is raising her voice. If you scream back at your teen or return her flippant comments, you are reinforcing the bad behavior. If the tone is disrespectful, parents should ignore their teen's argumentative comments and walk away. If she follows you, reinforce that you will not tolerate rude and obnoxious language. If she wants to talk, you will listen, but only if her tone is appropriate. Stick to this position, and don't give in. Show her that she can get her way more easily with respectful pleas.

Miller advises, "It's important for parents to consider that this behavior is somewhat developmentally appropriate. Parents can acknowledge that their teens need to go through this phase and not take it too personally. At the same time, however, it is important for parents to set appropriate limits with their teens." If it's an argument, Miller says parents should validate their teen's feelings, and also explain why they've taken their stance.

Teens will disagree and do it often. This is a natural part of their development. It's the tone and delivery that parents should be concerned with.


  • "We are lucky parents so far. Our kids really do not talk back to us, but rather do not talk to us at all."
    Michael Vyazmensky, Boca Raton, FL
  • "I tell my daughter that I will not be speaking to her until the attitude stops. If I am not speaking to her, this also means I cannot serve her as she would like me to. This could include anything from helping her with her hair, to giving her a ride somewhere."
    Debbie Naccarato Bango - Ivoryton, CT