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Parenting: Cut the Back Talk

Teach your children how to express their feelings- without trampling yours.

By Susan Isaacs Kohl

Janet Rogers remembers the anger she felt at having her opinions dismissed as back talk when she was growing up. “My mom took my head off if I questioned what she said,” says the Walnut Creek resident. “I had no way to voice my frustrations, and I acted out big time.”

Now, as the mother of two girls, ages 15 and 10, Rogers has fashioned her own approach to parent-child communication. She and her husband, Jim, encourage their daughters to talk about their feelings—but with a respectful tone. Rogers says, “If one of them goes too far, I say, ‘I respect you and don’t talk to you that way. I can’t really hear what you’re saying when you use a tone like that.’

Parents today often use insights from their own childhoods to teach their kids how to communicate. Most parents espouse giving their children the ability to speak freely. They also tend to be tolerant of their children’s verbal transgressions, attributing them to a stage of development—“She’s so young” or “Teenagers always find fault with their parents.”

But the same parents want their children to be able to communicate without being offensive. With full freedom to express themselves, how do children learn to speak respectfully? Here are a few ideas from successful parents.


In our culture, teens have the worst reputation for speaking out. Yet Judith Parker, a Walnut Creek mother of two teens, feels that her children have learned to communicate well—even during heated arguments.

How does she do it? Parker defines even intense dialogues as important; her parents never allowed her to express anger, and she has worked hard to reverse that pattern. She says, “It’s OK for my kids to argue about a rule and talk about being mad. When my son gets intense, he says, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but this is how I feel.’ ” Where did her son learn to express his anger without lashing out? “I’ve been careful about the way I talk to them, even when I’m angry,” Parker explains.


What about the teen who swears at a parent in anger or puts his parents down? Wynne Osborne, a family therapist and program coordinator of Childcare Solutions in Concord, thinks parents should set ground rules for communication starting when their children are young. When a child makes a disparaging remark in anger, Osborne suggests waiting until a calm moment to talk about the incident. A parent might say, “I know you were angry, but the things you said really hurt me. Words are powerful, and I don’t talk that way to you.”

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The way parents communicate their feelings is crucial. “If adults are careful not to disparage their children when they’re angry, they can ask for like treatment,” Osborne says. “People say things when they’re angry, but if we slip and say something hurtful, we should always apologize.”


When young children try out angry phrases like “I hate you,” they need coaching to learn to say “I’m angry.” Parents need to help children gain verbal skills, rather than taking their child’s remarks personally.

On the other hand, it’s important not to ignore rude remarks that will be upsetting when used with others. Sue Spencer-Edejer, a Walnut Creek mother of a five-year-old, created positive changes in her daughter’s communication. At four, Cierra was responding angrily at home and school. When asked to do something, she would say, “I don’t want to. You do it yourself.”

Spencer-Edejer began asking Cierra to repeat what she was saying in a “nicer tone.” She suggested more polite ways of phrasing her feelings, actually giving her the words, as in, “What we say is, ‘I’m busy right now. Could I do it when I’m finished?’ ”

Spencer-Edejer also realized that she was providing a poor role model for her daughter. She was getting frustrated and angry too often. “I worked on mellowing out. I also started spending a lot more time with Cierra doing fun things together.” Cierra’s mom and her preschool teacher saw the four-year-old’s attitude become more positive in a short time, and the rude remarks disappeared.

Successes like these come with struggle and self-awareness on the part of the parent. The fact is that we are all still learners when it comes to communication. We’ve made unprecedented progress in helping children to identify their feelings and talk about them. However, teaching them to treat others with respect, understanding, and kindness is the other half of helping them master communication.


  • Use a respectful tone when you speak to your children. When you do slip, apologize.
  • Encourage your children to talk about their feelings.
  • Remind them to use a respectful tone so that you can hear what they’re saying. With younger children, coach them on what words to say to express their feelings without being rude.
  • If children persist in using a disrespectful tone, tell them you want to hear what they’re saying but that you cannot be spoken to like that. Listen.

Published: Diablo, September 2007

Author bio: Susan Isaacs Kohl is the director of the White Pony School in Lafayette, California, and has been a consultant to parents and teachers for more than 30 years. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do.


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