Characterized by snarky or sassy remarks, sarcasm usually starts developing when a child reaches seven or eight years old. "Often they are just trying to test what they can get away with," says Teresa Buchanan, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Education at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Learning subtle ways to be clever and challenge authority is part of growing up, but sarcasm can be hurtful. And while sarcastic remarks may prompt the occasional chuckle, they often become obnoxious over time. Here’s how to deal with your child’s developing snarkiness.
Kids at any age may copy a communication style they hear regularly, but if you use sarcasm frequently, your child may be even more inclined to follow suit. "He may not understand the impact of his words on others, so you have to set an example," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. For instance, if you complain about a messy room by saying, "I see you picked up like I asked," you are modeling a tone you don't want him to imitate. Instead, be direct by saying, "I'm upset that I asked you to clean your room and you didn't." Also beware of sarcasm that you point at yourself. If you've been known to say, "Another fabulous dinner by Mom," after burning the chicken, don't be shocked if your child makes the same announcement next time.
In a culture of snarky TV characters like Bart Simpson and Squidward, it's a good idea to keep tabs on your kid's viewing habits. "You want to make sure that the positive influences outweigh the negative ones, in both number and importance," says Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Children's Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham. If you let your child watch The Simpsons, for example, make it clear that you won't allow her to say some of the things the characters say to one another. Point out these comments as you watch the show together, or simply don't permit the program until your child is older.
Let's say your son is playing a game with his friend Bryan and you hear him say, "Nice move, genius!" as Bryan makes a move that will lose him the game. Do you say something? "If the friend isn't bothered, wait until you get your child alone to explain why that wasn't nice," says Dr. Fleisig. This way you won't embarrass him in front of his friend, which could shift the focus onto his embarrassment instead of the insensitivity of the comment. If Bryan is upset, step in and explain that everyone makes bad moves sometimes, and if the tables were turned your son would not like being ridiculed.
If your child comes home and mentions a sarcastic comment a friend made to him, ask how that made him feel. If it hurt his feelings, suggest some non-sarcastic things he can say next time in defense. Although you have less control than you used to over what your child is exposed to, you can still model straight talk at home, as well as help him handle himself well in your absence.
Remember, it’s not about you. Try not to take your child’s new eye rolling or attitude personally. She loves you—back talk is just an expression of her temporary irritation and a tactic she hopes will get her what she wants. After a day filled with grown-up rules and expectations at school, expressing her opinion harshly helps her feel as if she has some control over her life.
Take the high road. If you’re curt on the phone or blow off your partner’s suggestions, your child is watching and listening. Kids can’t distinguish when you’re trying to be funny or you’re making a point, so aim to model appropriate behavior and apologize when you slip up. When he taunts you, look mildly bored and say, “You know how to talk to me if you want me to listen.” Then turn away. Over explaining or arguing gives his words far more importance than they should have.
Find real-life examples. Kids don’t always understand why their words wound so deeply. Let your child know that you empathize with her feelings but won’t tolerate a rude response. If you’re out in public and witness another kid’s blatant snarkiness, ask your child what she thinks about the behavior.
Respond the right way. Sometimes kids use an obnoxious tone when they don’t feel heard. Reflecting your child’s feelings by saying, “You don’t like ...” or “You wish ...” or “It bothers you that ...” can keep rudeness from escalating. When you say, “Thanks, that was a big help” or “Your room looks great!” without adding, “Why can’t you keep it neat all the time?” you’ll make it easier for him to respond positively in the future.
Sources: Bronwyn B. Charlton, Ph.D., cofounder of Seedlingsgroup, a parent-resource organization in New York City and Los Angeles; Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.