Q: Help! My 9-year-old's back talk has been increasing. In talking with her friends' parents, it seems as if she isn't the only one, but I'm struggling with the best way to deal with it. I know I don't respond well to it because it drives me nuts, but I think my response only escalates things. Any tips for how to deal with it in the moment while also trying to nip it overall? Or am I asking too much?

A: Let me send you some love, from one parent of a 9-year-old girl to another. The back talk is real. In my case, it is a combination of third-child-itis and two strong personalities (both of us) that keeps us tussling.

But for you? I don’t know why there is back talk, and this is the essential question you must try to answer. If you can’t answer the why, then you aren’t going to figure out what to do about it.

Let’s take a moment to understand 9-year-olds before we dive into back talk.

A 9-year-old, developmentally speaking, is at a wonderful and unpredictable age. A 9-year-old is prone to big emotions and outbursts as well as rational thought and patience, and this is maddening for both the child and the parent. A 9-year-old longs to be chosen, can be restless, and can be prone to worries and anxieties. A 9-year-old can be preoccupied with finishing a project (like my daughter, endlessly French braiding her hair last night before bed), so you may receive some back talk if you are trying to move your daughter along to get ready for school, get her in the car, get her to do her chores, get her to soccer practice, get her to do her homework. You have a schedule to get through, but she is busy with her own plans. And what happens when humans feel pushed around? They push back.

A child that age might back talk because they’re ready for more independence, but the parent is holding on to a younger version of the child. Seemingly overnight, your child is ready to walk alone to a friend’s house, organize their own homework, choose all of their own clothing and have opinions about their meals. Though this can feel challenging, it is best to see your child’s opinions and pushback as an invitation to change, rather than just straight-up misbehavior. It is useful to see back talk as a form of communication that needs to be better understood. When I am getting chronic back talk (here-and-there back talk is normal), I ask myself questions to clarify what I am seeing:

1. What is my child really trying to tell me?

2. What precipitated the back talk?

3. Did I say something that invited the back talk, or did it happen before I even opened my mouth?

4. How do I respond to the back talk every time it happens?

5. What are at least three ways I am positively connecting with my child?

The questions aren’t meant to give you perfect answers; they are meant to provide you a thoughtful place to see your daughter more clearly. The onus of change, when dealing with a sassy 9-year-old, is on you. She is not mature enough to reflect on all of her needs and speak to you maturely, as well as make clear behavioral changes. You need to look at her behaviors while staying strongly connected to her despite the sassiness and maintaining clear and firm boundaries. Parents logically know that all children need a warm and loving connection, but the sassier the child is, the less the parents want to connect with them. The less connected the child feels, the sassier she gets. So, before you set up consequences, connecting with her must be your primary effort.

Finally, what do you do in the middle of the sassiness? It depends. You may need to just walk away and hum a little tune while you go. Choosing to not react is powerful, so stay silent and breathe. Not feeding this fight is challenging, but it shows that you have power over your own emotions. It also gives you a chance to take a beat and respond with kindness.

If you are feeling calm, you can get on her level and say, “You sound frustrated, what’s up?” But you have to be ready for the actual answer. If your daughter tells you that you are smothering her, you have to be ready to receive it with a calm head. And yes, there will be a time that she back talks you and needs to lose something important. Try to not take away time with you — take away time with friends, technology or another privilege. Of course, if you react to every sass with taking something away from her, the behavior will get worse, so be judicious with punishments.

Good luck!

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