During a parenting class, one mother stated, “My kids are so sarcastic. They are constantly being rude to each other and being sarcastic with me.” Then she asked, “Do you think they got that from me?”
The simple answer to that question is probably so. Children generally learn how to interact with people by watching their parents (and other adults) interact with them and with others. When parents use sarcasm to release frustration or to point out what they think should be obvious, they model using sarcasm for their children.
Sarcasm, by nature, is insincere. Because of the way the brain develops in children, most children under the age of 9 or 10 don’t understand that what is said is the opposite of what is meant. Even so, if sarcasm is often used by the parents when they interact with members of the family, even young children may start to use it with those they interact with.
Today sarcasm is embedded into American culture. Almost all TV sitcoms revolve around characters primarily interacting sarcastically with one another. Sarcasm is not only found in sitcoms targeted towards adults but has also saturated programs targeted mainly toward children such as The Simpsons, The Emperor’s New Groove, and various other cartoons.
When children are constantly exposed to sarcasm, they learn using sarcasm is appropriate. However, when they use it with their parents, parents often respond with, “Don’t you pull that attitude with me. Show some respect.” If parents feel disrespected when their children use sarcasm with them, isn’t it possible, or more likely probable, that their children may feel disrespected when parents use sarcasm with them? When disrespect begins with the parents, the children may feel justified in being disrespectful as well.
In order for children to have optimal emotional development they need to feel safe and they need to feel a sense of belonging. Children learn to recognize cues in facial expressions and body language long before language skills set in. This means when parents use sarcasm while interacting with their children, their children pick up on that body language and those facial expressions and then become confused as to the meaning of the messages being sent. The confusion about the parents’ messages can lead to a child feeling emotional insecurity and having doubts about the child’s unconditional acceptance.
In contrast, while sarcasm can create feelings of insecurity, responding to our children with sincere empathy can create feelings of belonging and attachment. When we use empathy with our children rather than sarcasm, it activates the frontal lobe of the brain where higher thinking and problem solving take place. When we use empathy with our children when they make mistakes, it increases the odds that they will learn from their mistakes and that they will use empathy with us when we make mistakes. Showing empathy is one of the best ways to strengthen the parent-child relationship. Parents cannot truly show empathy while being sarcastic simply because empathy is sincere while sarcasm is not.
For parents looking to strengthen their relationships with their children, they may begin by first being aware of the frequency they use sarcasm with their children. As parents become more aware of how often they are sarcastic with their kids, and they recognize the negative effects that sarcasm has on families, they may find that replacing sarcasm with empathy dramatically improves parent-child relationship over time.
Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona. He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Institute.
He provides parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculum, classes for parents of children with ADHD, step-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents. He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.