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What Your Kid Hears When You're Being Sarcastic

Photograph by Twenty20

“Oh, I’m sorry, is that not a good time for you to listen to me?” The little boy’s face fell in an instant. Silence filled the air. Later, he would confide that he didn’t know what that meant, but he knew his mother sounded like she didn’t like him very much.

What you can’t hear through the screen is the sarcasm lining that question. You can’t see the smirk, half angry and half amused, that crept across his mother’s face. She was frustrated. He wasn’t listening. He was hyper-focused on something that happened at school, and he wasn’t hearing her because he was so busy trying to get her to hear him.

It was a common occurrence in their relationship.

One thing I hear over and over again from kids of all ages (preschoolers to high school students) is that sarcasm hurts. The little ones often don’t understand the hidden context of sarcastic comments, but they feel the burn of the voice tone. They see the angry facial cues that often accompany these comments. Older kids tend to internalize parental sarcasm and develop negative core beliefs (“I’m a bad kid,” “I’m not smart,” “I’m unlikable”) as a result.

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Sarcastic comments might feel satisfying in the moment, and they might seem harmless, but most children don’t have the reasoning to decode these statements in the moment.

One little girl told me that her mom often makes “mean jokes” that she doesn’t understand in front of other moms. This girl feels embarrassed as a result. She also feels like her mom doesn’t like her very much.

The best way to communicate with your child is to keep it simple.

The boy above doesn’t understand what his mom is attempting to communicate when she uses sarcasm. He prefers that adults say what they mean, because it’s easier to fix a problem when the directions are clear. He also wants to feel heard when he’s having a hard day instead of always being told to listen.

When kids fail to decode sarcastic comments, they personalize the words said and internalize negative emotions. This can negatively impact their self-esteem and trigger symptoms or anxiety. It also reduces trust and breaks the connection in the parent-child relationship.

Instead of relying on sarcasm with your kids, try these three strategies to improve communication and reduce frustration:

1 Meet your child at eye level

Both listening skills and communication skills rely on eye contact. When kids look down or away, it’s generally because they’re afraid to communicate their feelings. They don’t want to be rejected or, worse, they don’t want parents to meet their expression of emotions with jokes they don’t understand.

We live in a busy and hyper-connected world. Communication skills suffer because of it. How many times have you caught yourself answering a question without looking up from your phone? We’ve all been there.

Meet your children at eye level when you need to communicate with them. Take the time to slow down, remain calm and speak in a clear voice tone.

Think about a time that you felt embarrassed or hurt as a child. Is that something you want to pay forward by engaging in sarcasm when the going gets tough?

2. Keep it simple

Frustration can make us feel like everything is wrong all at once. When that happens, people sometimes verbalize everything at once. Frustration with a child who never puts his clothes in the hamper, for example, might morph into a long list of other complaints.

The best way to communicate with your child is to keep it simple. Break down thoughts and feelings into manageable pieces so that you can work together to solve the problem.

3. Empathize

I hear sarcasm used in the world of parenting all the time, and I always cringe when I hear it. Having worked with young children for so many years, I know how they feel when sarcastic comments surround them.

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Before you make that joke that might be funny for a moment but hurtful for much longer, tap into empathy. Think about how it might feel for your child. Think about a time that you felt embarrassed or hurt as a child. Is that something you want to pay forward by engaging in sarcasm when the going gets tough?

Little kids have big feelings. We might think our comments are harmless and a little bit funny, but those words might very well leave a scar that lasts a lifetime.

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