Stop the Back Talk and Keep Your Patience

Ahhh, seven-year olds. They’re getting older and wiser, but with this independence can come back talk, disrespect and ungratefulness. I don’t know a more frustrating behavior, and teaching how to NOT be like that seems close to impossible. Breezy Mama turned to Child and Family Psychotherapist, Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy.D. for help.

I’ve heard that 7-year-olds tend to be “too cool.” Stories of children talking back, rolling their eyes and being ungrateful seem to be common. Tell them to pick something up and they answer, “Why should I?” Many times, it seems as if I hear these type of stories when children are on vacation–they start acting like this out of the blue. Would a week of no “structure” bring this out in them, or is it a phase?

Let’s take your last question first.  No, a week of no “structure” would not make your child become disrespectful.  However, while on a family vacation it is quite possible that your child met and played with a kid who modeled this type of behavior.  Also, 7 years of age is the marker that kickstarts a new phase of childhood psychological development called the Latency Phase.  The early childhood years 0-6 are over and a child has entered a period of going underground with their feelings. Latency age is from 7-12 years.  Kids come out of this stage and emerge into adolescence. Adolescence parallels toddlerhood.  The toddler must claim himself as a separate being from Mommy.  This includes saying no and normal temper tantrums.  The adolescent must resolve his separation from his parents.  Children will wrestle with parents during this stage in order to emerge into adulthood with their own ideas and opinions about religion, relationships, sex, love, character, ethics, values, and morals.  During Latency, which is where these 7-year-olds are, children go underground in order to absorb and integrate the intensive previous six years of childhood.  During this time, it is more challenging to get into the child’s mind and know what they really think and feel.  You might ask,  “What did you do at school today?” and they will answer, “Nothing.”

When my child does something “not nice”, I try to talk to him in a reasonable voice, explaining why the behavior can’t take place, “When you accidentally step on someone, you still need to apologize” and he’ll do something like roll his eyes and yell, “Sorry! Fine, I said it.”  What should I do? It usually gets me worked up, and I need a time out.

Excellent question.  It also relates to the earlier question about when a child talks back and asks, “Why should I pick that up?”  They’re making you do all the work by coming up with explanations.  Many children (and grown-ups) are caught in a power-struggle and it’s hard for them to apologize.  They feel like they are giving up a part of themselves, or losing, when they say they’re sorry.  The key here is not the apology, but rather teaching your child a genuine sense of remorse and regret when he hurts someone.  Therefore, you cannot get angry at him because when you are angry, you can’t deal with him emphatically and compassionately.  You must be empathic and compassionate or he won’t be empathic to the one he hurt.

Here is what to do:  Using a benign, non-judgmental voice, say, “Oops, you said something disrespectful (hurtful, unkind) to your sister.  Show me how you can correct (fix) what you just said so we can proceed with playing.”  Then, the child will give you his insincere eye-roll and yell, “Sorry! Fine, I said it.”  Your response should be, “Yes, nice try.  Now try again.  You need to say it like you mean it.”  Give him as many tries as it takes until his tone of voice and facial expression feel genuine.  The automatic and natural consequence becomes losing play time.  No other punishments are required.  Otherwise, you will inadvertently create a negative cycle.

How about this scenario—a group of kids are playing baseball on the beach and the parents say to use a foam bat for safety. One child doesn’t want to. The mother explained why they needed to use the foam bat, and the child replied, “I don’t care, I’m using this one.” Is the mother being too patient with the explaining? Should she just grab the bat and say, “If you want to play, you can use the foam one”?

You have the right idea.  Yes, I think she is over-talking her explanations.  She should use short phrases versus full sentences.  Kids will tune you out if they smell anything that sounds like a lecture.  Just take (don’t “grab”) the bat away from him and clearly state, “This is our beach bat.  I hope you decide to play with us.”  The mother should leave it up to him whether to comply by her boundaries or to sit it out.  In other words, hold your boundaries but with kindness and compassion.

I’ve read that bad behavior can happen while kids are playing with their friends. When this happens, a parent could just go home when the behavior happens, but, if there is a sibling involved, that seems unfair to the other child, when they’re having fun. Should the parent have the child sit out for a bit? Any other suggestions?

Wonderful question.  The parent needs to tell their child the plan now, in advance of implementation.  Let them know that if they say anything disrespectful when they are out with friends you will respond they same way as at home, by having them correct their words and behavior right then and there in front of friends.  Tell them you will have the other mom watch the sibling and if it takes more than one try for them to fix, the others will proceed to their fun while you wait (patiently) until they’re ready to fix what they said.  Add that if they choose to behave this way in front of friends they leave you no choice but to deal with it in front of the friends.  Otherwise, you look like a bad mom by not teaching them.  It is critical that you explain this in a supportive, kind manner.  It should be matter-of-factly.  When you do this, that happens.  A + B = C.

What about “smart alec” answers? How should these be addressed?

Same thing.  “Smart alec” needs correcting and fixing.  The child must say it respectfully.  You bring me to a crucial point.  Many kids talk disrespectfully when they feel they’ve got a mom and/or dad who cannot accept or tolerate direct expression of anger.  Encourage and invite your child to tell you directly what they are angry about.  Don’t fear or avoid their protests.  Be brave and bear it.  As long as they disagree, disputes, or states their differences respectfully, you should praise them for honest expression.

Do parents do too much “talking it out”? Are kids this age too young to understand?

In the cases above, yes, the parents are talking too much but not because a 7-year-old is too young to understand.  On the contrary, they get it.  They knows exactly what they are doing.  The parent’s over talk allows the child to tune you out.  They are not taking in your message.  Cut it shorter to brief phrases and quickly tell them what they need to do to fix it.

Anything you’d like to add?

If your child is exhibiting this sort of behavior, have a sit down chat alone with them.  Tell them that they are so important and special to you.  Tell them you know they hate to be told what to do, and that you feel badly about having gotten angry at them.  Say you can imagine that they’ve been angry at you, too.  Tell them you want to change things so that they feel comfortable and good at home (and in school).  Let them know your plans to work on your own frustration and what they can expect to be different.  Own up to your end of the equation so that you model we are all humans who make mistakes and it’s not so terrible as long as we can always talk about things together and continue to work on ourselves.  You are their model.  You hope they will follow suit.  I do, too.  Good luck!

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Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her current book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at

To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.

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  1. Great post. Next time I get a smart alec response, I’m curious to delve into why!

  2. “Encourage and invite your child to tell you directly what they are angry about. Don’t fear or avoid their protests. Be brave and bear it. As long as they disagree, disputes, or states their differences respectfully, you should praise them for honest expression.” As the mom to an 11 year old, This really is so key to keeping communication open into the tween years and beyond!

  3. Theresa @rockonmommies says

    This is such a difficult task as a parent. Thank you for all the advice. I most definitely need to work on my consistency.

  4. Great post and great advise. 😉 I couldn’t agree more with the entire last paragraph. It has been something that definately helps us with our 8yr old!

  5. alison palmer says

    This morning my almost 7 year old woke up and I said, “Good morning, sweetie.” His reply, “Get lost!!!” I asked him to try again and he said, “Please, get lost!” 🙂

  6. Alison, I am cracking up–those are the type of comments that we’ve been getting here as well! For those of you with older kids, I’m glad to know I can use these methods for the long haul!

  7. Lots of good parenting advice. I remind myself daily that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and to be the citizen I want my children to emulate.

  8. “Here is what to do: Using a benign, non-judgmental voice, say, “Oops, you said something disrespectful (hurtful, unkind) to your sister. Show me how you can correct (fix) what you just said so we can proceed with playing.” Then, the child will give you his insincere eye-roll and yell, “Sorry! Fine, I said it.” Your response should be, “Yes, nice try. Now try again. You need to say it like you mean it.” ” ~ this is my favorite part. I’m not completely in this stage yet as I have a 5yo who has yet to give me any major attitude, but I love this and will definitely be adding this to my arsenal should the occasion arise.

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