“I don’t have to,” asserts six-year-old Dion when he is told to pick up his toys. Some moms might automatically react negatively to the verbal defiance. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” she may reply. Mom may even be successful at obtaining compliance. But the price may be that Dion learns simply to suppress his oppositional feelings. A wiser mom might respond that she understands and accepts Dion’s resistance. “I know you’re mad but we still have to get these toys picked up.” Mom is showing respect for Dion’s feelings while still insisting on obedience.
Mean and hateful words from teens are hard for loving adoptive parents to accept. When reminded that she must be home by her curfew, teenage Lana tells her parents: “Everyone gets to stay out late so why can’t I? You’re just being mean. I hate you. Why did you adopt me anyway?” Dad is hurt and tempted to respond in a similar fashion with a shutdown. “You’re grounded until you learn respect.” A better response might be: “I’m sorry you feel that way but we still expect you home on time.” Ignoring the verbal disrespect, a wise parent will focus instead on ways to enforce the curfew. By accepting the anger, however poorly expressed, Dad is telling Lana that her feelings, even negative ones, are understandable.
Dad might explore the situation further. Rather than defend himself or admonish her for disrespect, dad might calmly rephrases the complaint. “I understand that you want to stay out late to be with your friends. What do you think would be a fair curfew?” Dad listens to any additional information, then gives his own reasons. Perhaps a compromise is reached. Perhaps not. In either case, dad has modeled a more adult way to raise objections.
Focus on the behavior. Defiant talk may be uncivil but defiant behavior is unacceptable. True respect is demonstrated, not simply by words, but by compliance. Behavior can be better understood and controlled when feelings are openly expressed. Ignoring any verbal disrespect is a better way to eliminate it than by lecturing or punishing. Life itself will teach growing children that mean and defiant talk is a road to nowhere.
Many parents regard backtalk as serious misbehavior and insist that it stop. That is a mistake. Talking back may be uncivil but it is not bad in itself. Better for negative feelings to be expressed in some way than allowed to fester. Anger that smolders below the level of awareness is impossible to manage. A wise foster or adoptive parent can use backtalk as an opportunity to teach their child a better way to state his or her position.