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Three steps to handling a sarcastic child

I don’t like being around sarcastic people, as I find their cynicism rather irritating. A mom at a recent parenting workshop voiced the same concern about her twelve-year-old son. “Everything he says just sounds so sarcastic, but I guess all kids his age talk like that.”

Perhaps this mom is right. Cynicism and insults do seem to characterize much of the speech of young people. Many of the television programs for preteens seem to be filled with humor that is primarily focused on ridiculing others.

Kids use sarcasm for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it is intended for humor, but often is more offensive and hurtful than amusing. In other instances, teens speak sarcastically because they are unwilling or unable to directly communicate their feelings. Sarcasm provides them with a kind of protection since they can always say that they were “only kidding.” For many young teens, there is a chasm between what they think and feel, and their ability to express those thoughts appropriately.

 After an argument about getting her own cell phone, 11-year-old Melissa ended the discussion by proclaiming to her parents that “Yeah, you guys really do have lots of trust in me” and then walked away. Melissa was feeling just the opposite, but didn’t have the assertiveness or verbal sophistication to explain her real feelings to her parents.

So is sarcasm a normal teenage developmental stage that parents should understand and tolerate? Absolutely not!  The fact that a behavior is common doesn’t make it acceptable. It’s a mistake to view sarcasm as inevitable with our kids. You can easily (well, perhaps not too easily) stop sarcasm in your child by following these three steps.  

1. Establish a clear rule that sarcasm, insults and disrespect are not allowed in your family. You’ll need to be very specific with your children about exactly what that means. Give lots of examples of expressions that are not allowed in your family. Do more than just establish a rule, but discuss with your children how such language can be hurtful to other people, and is an ineffective way to communicate.

2. Enforce your rules. Lots of parents have rules, but few have consistent consequences. If you want to create an atmosphere of positive communication in your family then you have to take action when your children speak in offensive ways. This has got to be more than a verbal reprimand, but something that really matters to your child. Repeated offenses might result in restricting television, computer or cell phone usage or something else that is important to your child.

 3. Teach alternatives. You cannot punish away cynicism and insults. These behaviors are symptoms of kids who don’t know how to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Here’s the best way to teach kids these skills—ask lots of open-ended questions to provoke discussion. Don’t let this degenerate into an interrogation of your child. You’ll need to be willing to share your thoughts as well. This should begin when your child is 3, not 13.

(June 12, 2011)

PDF Sarcasm 6-12-2011

Next week: What childhood disorder affects one in six children, and is increasing?

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