Dear Dr. Ray,
My five children are ages fifteen, fourteen, eleven, nine and six. Their personalities are all very different. One thing they all do, though, is talk back. It’s the source of most of our arguments. ―Never the Last Word

In the Cutting Back Backtalk Talk article we talked about cutting back backtalk with preteens. Now onto reducing backtalk from adolescents. The ideas are similar, with a little fine-tuning.

Even the sweetest, nonlippy child can become lippy as he matures―or immatures―into adolescence. As kids get older, they increasingly believe that their way, not yours, is the way to see things. In and of itself that is not unhealthy. In fact, it’s part of growing up. Conflicts can arise, however, when Gabby constantly questions your decisions, to say the least.

The amount of backtalk seems to peak somewhere between a child’s thirteenth and fifteenth years. It usually holds steady for a few years after that and then starts to decline.

As with preteens, a high percentage of adolescent backtalk is grumble talk. They’re intent on complaining. They may be upset, but they’re not getting nasty or defiant: “Dry the dishes already? They’re still wet”; or “If I turn the stereo down any further, I might as well turn it off.” Good reactions to grumble talk are: (1) ignore it; (2) walk away from it; (3) stare blankly as if you don’t understand why Storm is making herself so unhappy. Spend too much time responding to grumble talk, and you raise the chances it’ll escalate into nasty talk, from everyone involved.

Sometimes you can defuse grumble talk by agreeing with it. For example: “This is the third time I’ve taken out the garbage this week!”―”That’s true.” Or, “I always have to make my bed”―”Yes, you do.” You’re not being sarcastic. You’re matter-of-factly acknowledging that what your youngster is grumbling about is the way it is. With you agreeing, there’s nobody left for Storm to grumble against.

Teens are also masters of the mumble grumble. The technique is straightforward. Turn your back on the closest grownup and walk away muttering discontentedly under your breath, just loud enough to let her know something is being said, but just soft enough so she can’t make it out.

Your instinctive response to mumble grumble might be to demand, “What did you say?” More than likely, you’ll receive the likes of “I didn’t say anything. Can’t a guy even talk to himself around here?” You know he’s talking to you; he never talks to himself in that tone of voice. Here you have two choices. One, you can pretend you didn’t at all hear what you can’t quite hear, using the “prodigal son” principle: If he’s doing what you’ve asked, he’s allowed to be unhappy about it. Or two, you can place a price on mumble grumble. Some prices are listed below under ways to deal with nasty talk.

Nasty talk is distinctly different from grumble talk. It is defiant, disrespectful, or challenging in tone or content. It carries a hostile, “Don’t tell me what to do” message. Like grumbling, the level of nasty talk typically also rises with the advent of teenhood.

Nasty talk is talk that needs consequences placed upon it. Otherwise, it can escalate in frequency and ugliness. Here are ideas for consequences. A very important point: These are linked to each instance of nasty talk.

1. Compose a 100-word essay on self-control, respect for others, expressing feelings appropriately, etc. The topic and length are your choice. Review the essay with your child, complimenting her thoughtfulness and discussing her ideas.

2. Look up, define, and use in a sentence ten dictionary words (three syllables or more, not a, an, the). Keep a dictionary handy, say, near the kitchen table. If you have a particularly tough-talking teen, you may need a dictionary in every room. This approach was one mother’s favorite. Her attitude was, “If you have to talk like that, you need a better vocabulary.” By the time her son was fourteen, he had the highest vocabulary scores in his high school.

3. Use the dictionary creatively. Find and define ten words with a “z” in the middle. Or, define fifteen words ending with “ion.” When my dad was really upset, he’d threaten me with “You can’t leave the kitchen table until you find ten words that begin with qx.”

4. Levy a monetary fine upon nasty talk. Teenagers may like to talk poorly, but they don’t like to be poor.

5. The reverse of nasty talk is respect. What privileges can your teen earn by exercising self-control for, say, two days? Gradually lengthen the time required to earn perks, such as extended curfew or phone times. Ask your teen what she’d like to earn, within reason; otherwise you could hear, “An unchaperoned trip to Daytona Beach.”

Grumble talk and nasty talk are normal teenage phenomena. They’ll disappear with maturity as long as you teach your teen that neither mode of communication is an acceptable way to converse in your home.

Dr. Ray