Say whaat?

Everyone has a pet peeve. Mine is: “Whateverrrrr!”

That word can send needles up my spine. I realize there are much worse things a teen can say, but for some reason, “Whateverrrrr” says it all for me. It means, “I don’t care what you think — you just don’t get it — get out of my face” all in one fell swoop.

Of course, this attitude is nothing new, and reminds me that parents of yesteryear actually had the right idea when they washed mouths out with soap — something you could probably be arrested for today.

So what do parents do about these smart mouths?

Some let it go, saying they have more serious things to worry about, such as drinking, drugs, and premarital sex. Others don’t put up with it.

For me, back talk is a sign of disrespect and should be handled as such. Teens should be taught how to speak up for themselves, but in an appropriate way.

Keep back talk in perspective

Does back talk start in the teens? Not entirely — what about when you asked your 2-year-old to pick up his toys and he said, “No!” and sneered at you? Although back talk is not strictly a teen phenomenon, it does seem to happen more often and with more disdain at this age. Parents have different opinions about where to draw the line; however, most feel that outright rudeness should not be tolerated.

Just like toddlers, teenagers are struggling to become independent from their parents. That independence is necessary as they approach adulthood.

“Teens are striving to become more autonomous,” explains Dr. Alec L. Miller, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. “To do so requires them to assert their own needs and wishes, even when those wishes are not in the context of good judgment and even when they are in direct conflict with the parents’ wishes,”

Teens like to argue, and parents should learn to embrace this as long as it is respectful. However, when a sharp tongue rears its ugly head, it’s time to put the clamps on.

Don’t get bent out
of shape

How do parents get their teens to back off the snide back talk? Parents should remember that they are the authority in the household. A teen who talks rudely once or twice and gets away with it will continue the behavior. When a teen’s language or attitude is inappropriate, there should be consequences. Try to remain calm even if your teen is raising her voice. Screaming back or returning her flippant comments reinforces the bad behavior. If the tone is disrespectful, ignore her argumentative comments and walk away. If she follows you, reinforce that you will not tolerate rude and obnoxious language. Tell her that you will listen if her tone is appropriate. Stick to this position and don’t give in — show her that she can get her way more easily with respectful pleas.

“It’s important for parents to consider that this behavior is somewhat developmentally appropriate,” advises Miller. “Parents can acknowledge that their teens need to go through this phase and not take it too personally. At the same time, however, it is important for parents to set appropriate limits with their teens.”

If it’s an argument, he says parents should validate their teen’s feelings, and also explain why they’ve taken their stance.

Teens will disagree and do it often — this is a natural part of their development. It’s the tone and delivery that parents should be concerned with.

Tips and tales

“Don’t stoop to their level!”

Dr. Robin Goodman, New York, NY

“We end up taking away electronics, which seems to work great.”

Gloria Jean Gibson-Lyons,
Salt Point, NY

“First I take a deep breath. Then, I give her a good ‘talking to’ in return.”Maryellen Livingston Moore,

Glenford, NY

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Myrna Beth Haskell is a freelance writer specializing in parenting issues and children’s development. She is the mother of two teenagers. Her advice column for parents of teens debuted in June 2009.