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Caring for the High Maintenance Child
By Kate Andersen.

Child Talking Back/Marital Conflict, March, 2017.
Dear Kate:
We took our 'high maintenance' eight-year old son to a child psychiatrist last week because we were so worried ....
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Issue Theme: Child Talking Back/Marital Conflict

How To Set Limits To Backtalk With The Preschool-aged Child

1. First label the behavior and let your child know it is unacceptable. When your child responds to your requests with a very insistent "No way, dummy" you can label the behavior 'backtalk' or 'being sassy', whatever term you feel comfortable with. Remember, it is the behavior that is bad, not the child.

"That is sassy, Melissa, and sassiness is not allowed in his house."

"I don't like backtalk, Michael, and it's against the rules in our family."

Make sure you and your partner agree about these rules and ask your child to repeat the rules back to you in simple words.

2. Make a distinction between backtalk and appropriate expression of feelings

Your young child is entitled to have feelings and opinions, and learning how to express these confidently and appropriately is an important part of development. Offer your child choices when possible ("Do you want a hamburger or spaghetti for lunch, Sara?") and respect those choices. Help your child understand the difference between a rude way of answering and an acceptable one. Practice what you mean. "This is what I mean by a rude voice". (Mother demonstrates rude tone.) Above all, do not take your child's good behavior for granted. Get into the habit of praising her when she expresses herself in acceptable ways. "I like the way you told me nicely that the soup was too hot for you." However, do not allow your child to get out of doing almost everything you ask, just because she refuses nicely.

3. Establish a suitable penalty for backtalk

A suitable penalty for talking back is a few minutes on a time-out chair (1 minute for each year of the child's age.) Use a kitchen-timer and add another minute for refusing to go the chair, for misbehaving in time-out (talking or kicking the wall), for a total of 10 minutes in time-out. When your child has served her time, make sure she does whatever she was asked before leaving time-out. For example, if your child talked back when you told her to pick up her toys, she must go and pick them up once time-out is over. Refusal will earn her another time-out.

4. Make sure backtalk and time-out don't serve as escapes from tasks

Some children use backtalk to distract their parents from enforcing tasks they don't like doing. Even time-out may be preferable to doing the task. If the request was appropriate in the first place, make sure your child does what he or she was asked after time-out, or you may strengthen backtalk in spite of using time-out.

5. Deliver clear, enforceable commands one at a time

Many parents fall into the trap of delivering a constant barrage of requests, commands, and admonitions to their children: "Don't with your fingers, Mike. Now, come on, sit up straight. What's the matter with you? Do you hear me? Pay attention to me. Come on, now, eat your lunch. Hurry up, we'll be late."

Aside from the fact that Mike can't possibly know what exactly is expected of him, his mother can't enforce all these requests and commands. (In this case, Mike responded with backtalk: "Shut up, you loudmouth dummy!")

Constant parental nagging and nattering are destructive to a child's self-esteem, and are common features of families whose children engage in backtalk and to go on to develop serious problems. We know that parents' behavior often develops in response to a child's difficult and trying temperament, but it is extremely important that parents change their own bad habits first before expecting the child to change.

6. Consider age and temperament in determining appropriate expectations

Ask yourself what behavior you really want and if you must demand it now. When Mike's mother analyzed the situation, she realized she wanted him to get on with his meal because they had to go out. Mike is a distractible, restless four-year-old, but he is capable of finishing a meal within 20 minutes if he is help to deal with distractions. Mike's mother could have cleared the kitchen of distractions (e.g. turned off the radio), sat down with him (instead of clearing the dishes), focused calmly on him (instead of expressing her exasperation), and said simply, in a friendly tone: "Eat your lunch up now." Having appropriate expectations may reduce some of the frustration that prompts children to talk back.

 
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