Who Has the Last Word? The Parent or the Child?

Some children are determined to get in the last word, or the last sigh, or the last gesture in every discourse. By the last word, I mean a child's entirely unnecessary remark made at the end of a parental statement on what the child should or should not do. The remark hits parental ears and sends shock waves through the nervous system, much like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Why Kids Want the Last Word

A struggle for separation

Usually by the age of seven, children discover that their parents are not as powerful as they once thought. Kids also realize that they themselves are not as powerless as they once felt. They are getting good at language skills and find that words can have a powerful effect on parents. Children are announcing their independence when they start using words in the struggle with parents. Parents don't have to like it, but it is a sure sign that the kids are growing up.

They all do it.

We can take heart in the knowledge that the behavior is perfectly normal and our child is not the only one doing it. Dr. Joan Costello of the University of Chicago has said that children use verbal harassment for one of three reasons:

  • to bluff themselves and others
  • to convince themselves that adults are really not so great and that they can survive without them,
  • and to test the limits of socially tolerable comments.

Too tough for tears

By getting in the last word, children may be bluffing -- trying to cover up any feelings that they have. When parents have said "no", it is better to get in trouble for "talking back" than to cry. Crying is not acceptable to a ten year old; smart aleck remarks that keep one from crying are preferred.

Parents aren't so smart after all.

As children assume more control over their lives, they also discover that their parents are not perfect. Children reason that since their parents are obviously not perfect, they must be incompetent. The kids then set out to prove how incompetent adults really are. This is all a normal part of middle childhood. As children realize that their parents cannot control their thoughts, expressing those thoughts takes on new significance. Parents are tempted to react defensively when challenged by their children and the challenge can easily become a power struggle.

Mouthy kids

Verbal harassment is a form of testing. The kids need to find the limits of socially acceptable behavior. We can understand why they are doing this but we do not have to sit back and allow verbal abuse. Just as the kids are experimenting by trial and error to see what will fly and what won't, we have to do some trial and error parenting.

How to Handle It When You Give Your Child the Last Word

Avoid power struggles

And how do we handle it? I'm still working on that one. There is no way I can tell you what will work in your family. For some families, this problem comes and goes rather quickly. In others, it becomes a way of life. Some children have a personality that makes it impossible for them not to challenge their parents at every turn. Some parents have personalities that seem to engage their children in such conflicts. Every family is different and every situation is unique. The one certainty is that power struggles are hopeless.

Don't re-act, act.

I think the key to handling each situation is the parent's attitude. The parent after all, is the one person in the verbal exchange who has some degree of maturity. It is useless to feel defensive and threatened by the young child's verbal harassment. It is time for reasonable, consistent consequences. If we can keep in mind what is going on for the child, we will be better prepared to deal with the situation.


It is best not to take a child's actions too seriously or they may begin to believe in their own power. There are times when the best response to a child's last word is to completely ignore it. If the child is out for power, being ignored is a defeat.

On the other hand, some things should not be ignored. We can acknowledge the child's feelings,
"I can see how angry you are with me;"
but we can also limit their actions,
"I will not allow you to call me names."

Decide now what the rational consequences will be for verbal abuse. Let your children know what you will not tolerate and what the consequences will be. When they cross the line, do what you said you will do. If you think through this before it happens, you will find yourself in control instead of angry and defensive.

Personally, I have discovered my own limits of tolerance. I don't mind my kids having the last word as long as

  1. They do what I want them to do anyway,
  2. The last word wasn't a personal remark about my character, intelligence, or parentage, and
  3. Their last word has never appeared on a restroom wall.

Every parent needs to establish their own rules.

APA Reference
Gibson, E. (2022, January 17). Who Has the Last Word? The Parent or the Child?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Last Updated: January 17, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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