SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim explains whether sarcasm can turn into verbal abuse and how to communicate in a way that is more helpful to your kids.
My husband has a tendency to use sarcasm and teasing with our young children. Our daughter is not, in my opinion, thriving with the teasing and sarcasm because she takes what he says literally. If her dad says, “Clean up your toys, or I will throw them all away," then our daughter drops to the floor in tears and upset. She gets upset because she doesn’t know the difference between sarcasm and reality, and it causes her a lot distress. When this happens I come to her defense and get bothered with my husband’s behavior and we end up fighting about it. Do you agree this behavior is a problem? How can I explain to my husband why he needs to change how he talks to her? I worry about his relationship with our kids and I appreciate any advice.
The dictionary defines sarcasm as “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt; a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark." Obviously, this isn’t positive.
Sarcastic comments — though oftentimes humorous — can also be passive-aggressive, mean, cutting and often uncomfortable to the people receiving them. Sarcasm can be the “wit that wounds” and children can’t see the humor in it or understand it until they're older.
In an article for Psychology Today, Signe Whitson writes, “Sarcasm relies on a type of subtlety that most children under the age of 8 do not pick up on. While the majority of adult communication occurs non-verbally through gestures, body languages and tone of voice, children are much more apt to interpret words literally and to miss or disregard non-verbal cues.”
Whitson says sarcasm, when used repeatedly, is a form of verbal abuse.
“It is a passive aggressive behavior in which the speaker expresses covert hostilities in sugarcoated, 'humorous' ways,” she said.
Many kids don’t have the maturity or confidence to handle sarcasm or teasing well. It is critical that we think about a child’s comprehension level and their emotional needs before we use sarcasm or tease them. You may have to communicate differently with each of your children and mindfully choose words that validate, educate and encourage them.
Think about each child in your home and ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this child suffer from insecurity, fear of not pleasing, fear of not belonging or being good enough? Do they need additional validation about their worth, talents and character to make them feel safe?
- Does this child feel the need to protect themselves and their things? Do they get upset if they feel taken from or mistreated? Are they afraid of losing things or having their things broken? Do they need to feel in control of their belongings and their choices to feel safe in the world? Do they need the autonomy to have more control or to feel safe?
- Does this child have the maturity to understand sarcasm, teasing and jokes? You will know by their reactions to these things. If it makes them feel confused, upset, insulted or mistreated, then they are not going to thrive with this sort of communication.
- What are you trying to accomplish with your communication? You have purposes to accomplish like getting your children to brush their teeth, go to bed, clean up toys, etc. But what else might your child need on the emotional level? Do they need reassurance that they are safe in the world, validation of their worth, education to better understand people or added encouragement in their abilities? Every interaction is an opportunity to give each child what they need.
- What kind of relationship do you want to have with this child? Do you want them to feel safe with you, confide in you, come to you with problems, or do you just want control? Teasing and making fun of kids (even if the goal is to toughen them up) may create a relationship where the child doesn’t feel safe with you. If you lose connection with your child, then you may eventually lose influence. It is always better to focus on connection rather than trying to control. Connection gives you long term influence in their lives because they trust and respect you.
- Do you care about how they feel? Or are you more interested in entertaining yourself or others with communication that you find funny?
Sarcastic people might think teasing is a form of tough love and that people (even kids) should be able to handle it. They may think saying “just kidding” after a sarcastic remark makes it OK, even if it was hurtful. They might even see themselves as funny people, even if they're the only ones laughing. They might miss the way their sarcasm cuts people on the receiving end.
You can be funny all you want, but if you do it at the expense of other people, they may not feel safe with you and may end up not liking you. This would be unfortunate with your kids.
My best advice is to slow down and pause before saying anything. Think about why you want to say what you are about to say. Is it love-motivated? Does it really need to be said? Does it meet this specific child’s needs? Take the time to figure out what each of your children need from you and decide how you should change the way you communicate to accomplish this.
If you are living with a sarcastic person, here are a couple of suggestions for dealing with them:
- Build a rock-solid self-esteem. Remember that no comment can diminish your value. You have the ability to let all hurtful comments bounce off of you if you choose to be bulletproof.
- Ignore their comments. This means denying them any attention for their comments. Pretend you didn’t even hear it and go about your business with peace, love and confidence. When they quit getting a reaction from you, it won’t be as fun to tease you.
- Treat every sarcastic remark as literal. Not seeing the humor may take the fun out of it and without humor their comments might just look mean. Ask them if their comment was meant to make you feel small.
- Talk about it. Have a mutually validating conversation about your relationship. This involves first seeing them as the same as you (not as a bad person) and then asking a lot of questions about how they feel about sarcasm. Ask if they care about the quality of the relationship? What kind of relationship do they want to have? Are they open to hearing how their sarcastic comments make you feel? Would they be willing to cut the sarcasm in favor of a better relationship moving forward?
Changing the way you talk to your children will take some thought and conscious effort, but it is the heart of your relationships with them, so it's worth the effort.
You can do this.
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