How to Handle Disrespectful Children



Alicia posted this request in her moms’ group discussion forum: “My 8 year old is starting to talk back frequently and is very disrespectful. I am trying to figure out what would be a consequence for back talk, but I can’t think of anything! (Besides a time-out or send to his room.)”


Half a dozen moms chimed in, “I know, my child does that, too, and it drives me crazy!” Some of the parents have toddlers, some have school-aged children, and some have teens. They asked how to discipline it, prevent it, and what to say and do.



Back talk and defiant children are problems many parents deal with — especially in this day and age when it seems children (and society in general) are more rude than any of us would ever considered being.

Almost as soon as a child learns to talk, parents can get “back talk.”  It can range from outright defiance from a toddler (“No!”), or smart-aleck remarks repeated from school (“Duh, Mom!”), or disrespectful teenagers’ attitudes and words (“That’s so stupid” (said with rolling eyes)).

Back Talk is such a common problem for parents that I had a special teleseminar about the topic. (Click here for the “Getting Back Talk? Let’s Talk” teleseminar, transcript and handout.) Here is a summary of what we discussed.





Back talk is a trigger button for most parents. It can even make the most calm, respectful parent throw their manners out the window.


Parents often tell their children that when someone is disrespectful to them, they are still to treat others with respect. Yet, when children are disrespectful to them, they often don’t follow this same standard and digress into disrespectful communication/treatment of the child.


Here are typical reactions to back talk:

  • “How dare you talk to me that way! Go to your room!”
  • “You’d better get to your room on the count of 3 or you’re grounded!”
  • Punish the child by removing toys/entertainment.
  • Use bribes, incentives and sticker charts to reward the child when he or she is not rude.


Do any of these sound familiar? Have you ever gotten advice like this? Have you ever tried these approaches? (Don’t feel bad if you have; most of us will try just about anything to see what works.)


Even IF these reactions worked in the short run, there are hidden messages or negative long-term consequences with each one:

  • Demanding respect usually escalates the problem and models disrespectful treatment of others,
  • Warnings invite defiance.
  • Punishments that are totally unrelated to the offense are ineffective and the child learns nothing about how to behave as the parent desires.
  • External motivators may work in the short run, but long-term research shows they have many negative consequences. Furthermore, children should be respectful because it’s the right thing to do, not because they will get a payoff.  If they are in a situation later, where the parent can’t see them to reward them, they have no motivation to be polite.





In The Parent’s Toolshop®, we follow the Universal Blueprint® Parenting Success Formula. In this problem-solving system, we always start by identifying why the child is behaving that way.


So why are there such rude children, defiant children and disrespectful children these days? Here are a few reasons:

  • They don’t get what they want,
  • They are angry,
  • They think it’s funny; as a joke,
  • Because they hear their friends, other adults and/or people in media (like TV shows) talk that way.


Then, we use the step-by-step Universal Blueprint® Effective Response Formula, to respond in a way that specifically resolves the reason for the behavior:


In one sentence:

  1. Acknowledge the child’s feelings or wants and
  2. Express your concern about how the child expressed those feelings or desires.

In your second sentence,

  1. Offer an acceptable way for the child to be heard.


Effective responses to back talk that are modeling and teaching respect may differ slightly, based on which reason above is the cause. Here are examples for each:


When dealing with disrespectful children because… they don’t get what they want: (On purpose for Power)

  • Acknowledge what they want and state that they need to ask in a respectful way. Teach them what that sounds like, if you haven’t already.
  • Tell them the answer is definitely “no” if they ask disrespectfully. If they do ask respectfully, you are at least willing to consider the request and might grant it, depending on what it is.


When dealing with disrespectful children because… they are angry: (Unintentional, lack of anger communication skills)

  • Acknowledge that you understand they are angry and why (if you know why).
  • Say that you are willing to listen to their concerns if they voice them respectfully, but won’t be spoken to disrespectfully.
  • Tell them how you do want them to express their anger or opinions appropriately. Give them the exact words to use.
  • Tell them you are willing to listen when they are willing to talk respectfully.
  • Then disengage and walk away.


When dealing with disrespectful children because… they think it’s a joke: (On purpose for Attention)

  • Acknowledge that they may think it’s funny, but since it’s disrespectful, it could hurt someone’s feelings. Jokes make people feel good. They don’t hurt people.
  • Suggest (but don’t enforce) it would be nice if they apologize or make amends.
  • Drop the subject. Any further attention will reinforce the negative behavior.


When dealing with disrespectful children because… friends/media talk like that: (Unintentional, lack discretion)

  • Acknowledge that they might talk to their friends that way or hear other people talk that way but “in this family we treat all people with respect.”
  • Say that while you’d prefer they talk to ALL people respectfully, you realize you can’t prevent them from talking this way to their friends. You do expect, however, that they talk to their family members, extended family and the general public with respect.
  • Tell them they need to learn “discretion,” or who they can talk to like that. If they show you that they can’t control when they talk like this, because they’ve been spending too much time with people who do talk like this, then they are showing you they need to spend less time with those people and their social time will be cut back.
  • It’s their choice whether they continue to spend social time with friends, based on whether they can talk respectfully to others.


So the next time your tot, tween or teen gives you lip, remember to keep your lips closed long enough to take a deep breath and calm down. Figure out which of the above reasons your child is being disrespectful. Then respond (not react) helpfully, using the suggestions above, so you will be modeling and teaching respect. Check out this article by Alfie Kohn for additional perspectives and ideas on handling disrespectful children.

For more support or information:

  • If you’d like more information or support in stopping back talk in your family, get the “Getting Back Talk? Let’s Talk” teleseminar package.
  • Back Talk is just one of a gazillion parenting challenges that you can use the Universal Blueprint® to find a helpful response to in seconds! To learn the Universal Blueprint® Effective Response Formula and get personalized support for applying it to the challenges you face, sign up for the FREE 30-Day Challenge now.




Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network, and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop. For 30+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series.

Reprint Guidelines: You may publish/reprint any article from our site for non-commercial purposes in your ezine, website, blog, forum, RSS feed or print publication, as long as it is the entire un-edited article and title and includes the article’s source credit, including the author’s bio and active links as they appear with the article. We also appreciate a quick note/e-mail telling us where you are reprinting the article. To request permission from the author to publish this article in print or for commercial purposes, please complete and send us a Permission to Reprint Form.

2 thoughts on “GETTING BACK TALK? LET’S TALK! How to Handle Disrespectful Children”

  1. It gives me a headache every time my kids disrespect me. Sometimes I could not know how to react with their behavior and I have a very hard time dealing with it. If only I taught them respect when they were younger then I would not experience what I am experiencing right now. Good thing there are lots of articles online that quite informative and useful.

  2. Thank you Ron. Dealing with disrespectful children is one of the top challenges parents face, but with the Parents Toolshop Universal Blueprint parents learn a plan on how to respond to the back talk, sass and inappropriateness without reacting to the situation. Children are taught how to handle their emotions and communication skills are built.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top