Most parents of children under the age of three realize quickly that the best way to handle a tantrum is by ignoring it. They find out that the number of tantrums and their length or intensity will decrease once they learn to walk away. However, after a child turns three and those temper tantrums turn from rolling on the floor to verbal, it seems the tantrums take on a quality that either makes parents want to scream themselves or cry because they're so hurt.

Talking back is a three year old's temper tantrum. It's no worse (even though it feels like it) than falling on the floor, kicking and screaming, unless we make it worse by over-interpreting the behaviour. Children have a right, like we all do to get mad, especially when we won't let them do something. When they are moved developmentally into the world of words, it is very natural for them to lash out at us with those words (poo poo head, poopy mommy, I hate you, go away, you're a no-good mommy, etc.)

How we react - more like whether we react - will determine if this unlikeable behaviour becomes habitual or dies out due to a lack of reinforcement.

If you do not react ("That not nice", "How dare you", "You hurt mommy's feelings when you talk like that") then the talking back worked for the child and she/he will continue to do it in order to get a reaction out of you. If you do not react, the whole purpose flops, and after a few more attempts, he/she will discontinue because it just isn't working. In other words, there is no pay-off.

This purposeful ignoring is not about giving in though. If you have made a statement like, "Your snack will be ready when you've washed your hands" (over 3 years of age), and you get told that you are a stupid mommy, then while you will ignore the words, you will also be waiting for the hands to be washed. Make yourself busy with other things while your child contemplates the decision he/she must make. Even if things get really bad, do not present the snack unless the hands are washed. This is difficult at first. Walk away, pretend you're deaf, turn your back and resist the urge to say anything. Any response will be so thrilling to your child that this behaviour will be repeated (and probably escalated) next time.

Your child is mad and will show it in a developmentally appropriate way; to spew words at you. However, he/she will soon find out that nothing changes. You do not get mad back, you don't cry and most of all, you do not feel sorry for them and cave in.

Author's Bio: 

Erin Kurt, parenting & life coach to working mothers, and founder of ErinParenting, is also the author of Juggling Family Life and creator of The Life Balance Formula and the How to Get Your Child to Listen program.