Back-talk is triggered by your youngster’s emotions, primarily frustration, anger, and a need to get revenge when he/she thinks something is unfair. On the far end of the continuum is verbal abuse, which is meant to inflict emotional pain on the parent. Verbal abuse often includes foul language and disturbing threats of violence designed to intimidate the parent into “giving in” and letting the teen have his/her way. Children who use verbal abuse want to attack you so that they can control you. They don't care about consequences; they're not intimidated by them. Thus, verbal abuse has to be handled in a very special way.
Why do children talk to parents in disrespectful ways? Because they don't know how to express emotions appropriately. They learn a lot from watching other children and people around them. If your son is frustrated and doesn't know how to show it, and he sees somebody else roll their eyes and make a face, he’ll absorb that lesson without even thinking about it. Then the next time he’s frustrated at home, he’ll roll his eyes and make a face at you. If he gets a reaction out of you, the behavior gets reinforced because he knows he’s succeeded in pushing your buttons.
It's not easy to ignore mildly disrespectful behavior, but don’t kid yourself. If you threaten your youngster by saying, “Don't roll your eyes at me, young man, or you'll be grounded,” that will only make him do it more. If you respond to annoying behavior in a strong way repeatedly, you give it power and strength. Conversely, the less you challenge it, the less you give it power – and the less power you give it – the more it's going to die a natural death.
The worst thing parents can do is to challenge back-talk ‘inconsistently’ (i.e., sometimes you let it slide, sometimes you confront it). With inconsistent confrontation, back-talk tends to become more entrenched.
The Use of Sarcasm—
Teens generally use sarcasm in two ways: (1) they make sarcastic comments when they’re feeling like they’re under pressure, or (2) they use chronic sarcasm as a way to manage their anger safely (it’s safer to show their anger through sarcasm than it is through other means they’ve learned).
Usually sarcasm is learned and modeled by grown-ups, and so part of the response to sarcasm in children is for the adults to avoid lowering themselves to the child’s level. Often when parents are mad about their kid’s performance, they make sarcastic comments. These comments are hurtful, and teens develop a defense to that by becoming sarcastic themselves. Sometimes you’ll see children who are really sarcastic and use verbal abuse in most areas of their life. The function of chronic sarcasm is to help teens deflect any blame while throwing anger onto the target parent.
When you witness sarcasm in your teen, ask yourself, “Why is my youngster responding this way?” It’s usually not hard to discover what your youngster is threatened by that leads to sarcasm. Sometimes it’s a secret, sometimes it’s a task she hasn’t completed, and sometimes it’s a power struggle. Whatever it is, once you’ve identified it, it becomes much easier to resolve. For example, if your teen becomes sarcastic whenever you bring up the topic of homework, a good question to ask is, “How come you get sarcastic whenever we talk about your homework?” This question is effective because it both identifies the issue and puts your youngster on the spot.
A very powerful way to respond to sarcasm is to simply say, “I don’t appreciate that comment” – then turn around and walk away. In this 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 youngster more power.
It’s normal to become annoyed when your teenager says sarcastically, for example, “Great job, Mom …duh!” This is where you have to draw the line between what kind of disrespect requires your attention and what doesn't. A comment that is not a personal attack and not meant to demean you can be handled by simply ignore it. This is “intentional ignoring,” which is used when you decide consciously to ignore attention-seeking behaviors as long as they’re not overtly hurtful or abusive.
When your youngster says, for example, “You’re an idiot,” make no mistake – he means you're an idiot. This comment does NOT go into the “intentional ignoring” category. You can say very clearly, “There's no name calling in this house, and there is a consequence for name calling.” Set limits on it very clearly and hold your youngster accountable. Every time he says “you’re an idiot,” he goes to bed 15 minutes earlier or has 15 minutes less TV time. He should be held accountable from the beginning.
Lastly, don't give your youngster a second chance when he’s being verbally abusive to you. Second chances create bad habits in children. As soon as you start giving your child a second chance, he will think to himself, “Hmmm, the first one is free, so I won’t get into trouble if I call dad an idiot.”
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents Who Are At Their Wits-End