Don’t Back-Talk Back: How Parents Unwittingly Invite Power Struggles and Defiance, and What to Do Instead

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If your child is more than six months old, it’s a sure thing that you’ve experienced defiance or a power struggle. Back-talk and attitude generally come later; but once again, these are behaviors all parents have seen at one time or another, if not many times a day.

Power Struggle

Several years ago, at the airport, I overheard a mother and her teenage son having a back-talky conversation. It went something like this:

Mom: “Hey hon, could you grab this bag for me?”

Teen:  “Um…can’t you see my hands are full? Grab your own bag.”

The teen then continued to type, one-handed, into his smartphone.

Mom:  “Don’t you speak to me that way, young man! I’ve just paid for an expensive and wonderful vacation for you, and you can’t manage one simple favor? Put that phone down, NOW!”

Teen:  “I’m busy. Hold on.”

Mom:  “I’ll be happy to hold on . . . to your phone!”

She then grabbed his phone, threw it in her purse, and stomped off.

He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and took off in the opposite direction.

(As I watched, I was wondering how they would find each other now that she had his phone.)

I had just witnessed one of my worst fears: a snarky child acting out in a public place. I was just happy it wasn’t mine…this time.

Of course, as my children grew, I received my fair share of attitude and back-talk, too. But I now know that my own response to back-talk, defiance, and power struggles makes a HUGE difference in how this kind of scene goes down.

“It takes two to create a power struggle. I have never seen a power-drunk child without a power-drunk adult real close by.”

Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline

If you look at the airport scene again, what do you notice? Was the teen being disrespectful? Absolutely. Was the Mom modeling the kind of respect she wanted, as she yelled, lectured, and responded sarcastically? Not even close. Her back-talk was just as bad as his.

What lesson is this teenager learning about back-talk?

From his mother’s example, he might be learning that the way to get what you want is to demean, yell, lecture, and manipulate. I’m quite sure that this mother was hoping to teach just the opposite.

So, when you’re getting defiance and back-talk from your children, how do you respond? How can you model respect, but still get across the message that the way they’re behaving isn’t OK?

There are many ways! Keep reading…

Let’s take a new scenario now, because parents with children of all ages can likely relate to this one: a child refusing to do a chore. We’ll look at the same scenario in two rounds: one where Dad takes the bait, and one where he doesn’t. (The words in bold and parentheses are the tools or tool the parent is using.)

Round 1

Dad: Honey, it’s time to unload the dishwasher. It’s your turn tonight, so let’s get to it.

Daughter: I don’t feel like it. Someone else can do it.

Dad: What do you mean, you don’t feel like it?

Daughter: I mean, I don’t feel like it! I always have to load the dishwasher and I’m sick of it!

Dad doesn’t realize he’s been invited to a power struggle. He unwittingly accepts the invitation, and continues on with one of these less-than-helpful retorts:

  1. Don’t talk to me that way young lady! (Lecture/Demand)
  2. Go to your room and don’t come out until you can be respectful! (Demand / Punishment)
  3. You are grounded for a week! (Punishment)
  4. How can you talk to me that way after all I have done for you?  (Guilt)
  5. You just lost all your privileges. (Punishment)
  6. Maybe Military School will teach you to be more respectful of authority.  (Threat / put-downs)
  7. How far do you think that smart mouth is going to take you? (Sarcasm / put-downs)
  8. You will be respectful if I have to ground you for a year. (Threats / Control)

As you read these scripts, what were you thinking? How did you feel? If you were the child in this situation, what would decide about your Dad? What would you decide to do?  If you’re like most people, you might be feeling even more angry and defiant. You might be deciding that your Dad is unreasonable, unfair, and just doesn’t understand. You might be learning that in order to get what you want, you must overpower others.

Now let’s try again. This time, imagine the same dialogue, but instead of the 8 retorts above, Dad offers something more like the Round 2 responses below.

Round 2

Dad: Honey, it’s time to unload the dishwasher. It’s your turn tonight, so let’s get to it.

Daughter: I don’t feel like it. Someone else can do it.

Dad: What do you mean, you don’t feel like it?

Daughter: I mean, I don’t feel like it! I always have to load the dishwasher and I’m sick of it!

Dad recognizes that he’s been invited to a power struggle, but politely declines the invitation, takes a deep breath, and responds in one of these ways instead:

  1. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing my jobs, either. Would it help if we worked together or would you rather do it on your own? (Validate Feelings / Limited Choice)
  2. Hmmm, I don’t feel good about how we’re speaking to each other. Can we try a Do-Over? (Do Over)
  3. I can tell you’re upset right now. Me too. Let’s take a break and talk later when we’re feeling better. (Modeling emotional regulation)
  4. What would help us right now—some time out, or putting this on the family meeting agenda?  (Curiosity Question)
  5. I can hear that you are really angry right now. Do you feel like telling me more about it? (Validate Feelings / Ask vs. Tell)
  6. I can’t make you do it, but it sure helps everyone when you do.  (Acknowledging limits of power. Not taking the bait. Giving space.)
  7. I love you and trust you to get it done. (Connect Before Correct / Show Faith)
  8. I hear that you really don’t want to do this. What can we do to make it easier for you? (Validate Feelings / Curiosity Question)

If you were the child hearing these kinds of responses, what would you be thinking and feeling this time around? What would you think about your Dad? What would you decide to do? Most people say they might feel better-understood, more respected, and more motivated to cooperate.

Will the Round 2 responses guarantee corporation? Of course not. But they absolutely do increase the odds, because the parent is respectfully modeling the very behavior they want to see in the future.

“It’s very hard to be disrespectful to someone who’s being respectful to you.” 

Lois Ingber, Lead Positive Discipline Trainer

It’s not impossible, but it is hard. When someone treats you with respect time after time, it just doesn’t feel right not to give them the same respect in return. 

Next time you notice your child inviting you to “back-talk back,” try out some of those Round 2 scripts and see what you learn. Even if you don’t get cooperation in the short term, you’re building a relationship that invites more connection and cooperation tomorrow, or the next day.

At minimum, this Round 2 approach makes me feel so much better than I do when I respond the usual way as in Round 1.

How often do you accept your child’s invitation to a power struggle? What will you try next time it happens? I’d love to hear from you; leave a comment here.

Most of these scripts are from the activity, “Don’t Back Talk Back” from “Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way” by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott. This is one of many fun and experiential learning activities I’ll be facilitating in several Parenting with Positive Discipline classes in the San Francisco Bay Area starting January, 2019. Learn more about my classes here.

Click here to download a 1-page Script Sheet with the Do and Don’t phrases above.

Read more about back-talk here:

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