How Nannies and Au Pairs Can Cope with Back-Talk

aaaWhat Are Your Tips For Working With Disrespectful Tweens?

Yesterday we explained that eye-rolling, sarcastic, back-talking pre-teens don’t have the maturity to know when they’ve crossed the line. Their highly reactive amygdala (part of the brain) triggers the brains’ automatic fight-or-flight reflex. In other words, it’s inevitable that pre-teens will speak and behave inappropriately to see what they can get away with.

In her book, Don’t Give Me That Attitude!: 24 Rude, Selfish, Insensitive Things Kids Do and How to Stop Them Michele Borba explains how to cope with back-talking tweens. She explains that although you won’t banish the back-talk forever, these tips will help you mitigate the issue — as well as develop a thicker skin:

  • Figure out what’s behind it. Sometimes an obnoxious attitude is a reaction to stress, disappointment, or even too little sleep. Middle schoolers are trying to prove themselves academically and socially, and it can be a challenge to keep negativity and cynicism at bay when they’re emotionally depleted.
  • Target one attitude at a time. Do you bristle at his fresh mouth or sense of entitlement? Are you most offended by her barely-under-the-breath remarks or the way she rolls her eyes when you speak? While there may be several things you wish would disappear instantly, focus on one at a time.
  • Nurture the attitude you want to see. Once you’ve targeted the offensive attitude, zero in on what you’d like to see instead. For instance, an insensitive child needs to be caring and empathic; the non-compliant child can learn to be respectful and dependable; the demanding child should be considerate.
  • Stay cool. The child wants to see that he’s ticking you off — and he’s probably quite good at it.
  • Draw your line in the sand. During a peaceful moment, patiently point out the attitudes you’re concerned about. Make it clear that, while you understand her feelings and opinions, you won’t tolerate her response. You could say, “I know you think I’m not being fair, but I won’t be spoken to like that.” Or, “That may be the way you talk to your friends, but it’s never okay with me.” Give her another chance to respond in a kinder, gentler way: “If you’d like me to help you, ask politely,” or “You call me clueless, and that hurts my feelings. Can you say it another way?”
  • Follow through with consequences. If the child has slipped into the habit of being disrespectful, he really may not be aware of it or, in the heat of the moment, realize how wounding his words are. Still, Borba advises that you “flat out refuse to respond until he does.” If it continues, ground him or take away privileges: no cell phone or X-Box, an early curfew, missing an important social event.
  • Notice the good times. When the infuriating comments cease, let the child know you’re proud of her. And hang in there: by the age of 14 or 15, the nice kid you used to know will come back.

Don’t Give Me That Attitude!: 24 Rude, Selfish, Insensitive Things Kids Do and How to Stop Them


  1. From day one (during my job interview) the mom boss told me to have the oldest son to say it again nicely whenever he used a bad tone. He was only 5 yrs old. Now at 15 it's ridiculous. He never once said it again when I've asked him to. It's just a problem with kids today. We were never allowed to use bad tone to our parents, teachers or anyone.

  2. I ignore them until they can speak to me politely

  3. I go through this with an 8 year old constantly. My stock response is "You asked, I answered and explained. End of discussion". I know I'm tired of saying it but apparently he's not tired of hearing it yet.

  4. It takes a few years into their 20's before they realize they don't know more than they think they now. They think they are the smartest people in the world! Don't take it personally. Stand your ground! Stay calm.

  5. Kids talk back when they are older because they were allowed to talk back when they were younger. I have seen so many parents ignore small children talking back, or else thinking its cute because they are so young. It becomes very un-cute the closer they get to being a teenager. You must nix it immediately, just like you would with any other bad behavior. It's embarassing and disrespectful and rude to allow kids to argue with adults be it their teacher, mother, nanny, or babysitter.

  6. It's hard to find articles about working with pre-teens and teens. This is really great advice!

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