Teenager sarcasm
Children get better at understanding sarcasm through the early school years and into adolescence. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Finding your child getting a grade A in sarcasm? Stay calm, it may just be the fallout of intelligence.

According to a 2011 study, published in the American ‘Journal of Applied Psychology’, the ability to dole out welts of sarcasm and to understand the play of words is a sure sign of an intelligent and creative mind.

What is sarcasm?

Rakhi Joshy, Speech and Language Pathologist at Open Minds Dubai, explains: “Sarcasm is a form of everyday language in which the speaker says the opposite of what he or she means, typically with a distinct tone of voice, to be critical in a funny way. Sarcasm is widespread, found across languages and in the various ways we communicate.”

And while a child may be exposed to sarcasm in some way from an early age - depending on the schema of the household - they won’t be able to really understand the nuances of the exchange until they are about five or six years old. “Before that age, children tend to interpret sarcasm literally. Children get better at understanding sarcasm through the early school years and into adolescence. This progress is related to developmental changes in children’s language, thinking and creative skills related to processing, understanding and communicating about emotion,” she adds.

Language and innovation

The beginning of communication is creativity. “Language acquisition is an innovative process in which children create their own sentences and their own rules for making sentences,” says Joshy. “Children naturally play and explore with language sounds, structures and meanings, and it has been argued that, this kind of spontaneous, often playful, creativity in language contains the seeds of more poetic, literary and dramatic cultural forms in their language.”

The dance of language, aka sarcasm, stimulates the mind muscle - made up of millions of neural connections - and it responds by thinking more creatively. She says: “Children [often] pursue creative activity through language, using it to practise social roles, speculative thinking, intellectual exploration and the creation of alternative worlds.”

Sneha Kothari, Speech language Pathologist (SLP), teaches kids who have trouble deciphering social cues about sarcasm. She says: “Teaching sarcasm to kids with social impairments can be challenging. It’s a nuanced topic and people have strong opinions about its place in the world as a communication tool… Sarcasm is usually communicated by any of the following:

  • Facial expressions and body language,
  • Tone of voice and word choice,
  • A mismatch between the words and the context or other clues and
  • Consideration of what you know about the person.”

Exchanges with a sarcastic teen

That’s not to say being confronted by a sarcastic teen isn’t difficult to deal with. “Sarcasm may seem rude, but teaching kids how to take it, and dish it out, is important,” explains Joshy.

“By around age nine or ten, kids start taking more notice of what their friends/others are saying and how they’re saying it and may begin testing boundaries in conversations, including using sarcasm.”

Nathalie Barsoumian, UAE-based Educational Consultant and mum of three, suggests the following for parents faced with sarcasm:

Scan for content: “First, we must keep in mind that sarcasm is a joke,” she says. “So, when faced with sarcasm, what we can do is to respond to the content instead of the tone.”

Let it go: “When it comes to dealing with sarcasm from complete strangers, let’s feel some compassion and move on,” she says.

Explain the issue: “If you care about someone who is misusing sarcasm, consider talking to them, and expressing how the situation made you or others feel through a gentle intervention.”

Rules of sarcasm

This method of banter has a bite - and that’s best explained to a child, to both diffuse the situation and to teach social skills. Barsoumian suggests:

1. Discuss sarcasm, what is it, what is accepted and what are the limits. Be as specific as possible by providing examples. Set clear expectations.

2. Establish a clear rule stating that disrespect and insults are not allowed in your family.

3. Teach alternatives. Teach your child/teen to communicate their thoughts and feelings, by asking open-ended questions and discussions.

4. Start early: Begin embedding these habits from an early age, instead of waiting for children to be teenagers.

Consider the eye-roll; a handy tool in the teenager’s arsenal when dealing with the world. Or that witty remark that seems rapier sharp. As long as the tool is in the right hand, as long as sarcasm is used moderately, with like-minded people who won’t take offence, it can be engaging and allow for out-of-the-box thinking. Or you could think of it as a phase - that works too.

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