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If your teen's being sarcastic, it's probably because they're intelligent

According to one psycholinguist, parents struggling with sarcastic teenagers now have a reason to celebrate: their kids may just be super smart.

If your teen's being sarcastic, it's probably because they're intelligent
Image Source: Alexander Shelegov / Getty Images

While it can be difficult for younger children to understand sarcasm, it may seem like "sarcastic" is your teenager's default state. According to one study conducted by researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada, a teenager's sarcasm can actually be indicative of how intelligent they are. Allegedly, sarcasm adds much-needed nuance to human interactions and some evidence suggests it can prime us to be more creative or share our negative emotions so we are not suppressing them. Ultimately, whether sarcasm is used as a tool for good is determined by a teen's parents. They can train children to use sarcasm for positive reasons, BBC Family Tree reports.


Penny Pexman, a psycholinguist at the University of Calgary, argued that sarcasm requires the brain to jump through numerous hoops to arrive at a correct interpretation, requiring more brainpower than literal statements. Several other psychologists and neuroscientists have agreed with her. She believes the complexity of sarcasm is a result of its long developmental trajectory across childhood. Generally, children under the age of five are unable to detect sarcasm. However, this changes as they get older. Convinced about the benefits of using sarcasm, Pexman has started designing training programs to help those with an underdeveloped sense of sarcastic irony.


She affirmed, "It can be quite challenging." Sarcasm takes years to master and can actually be evidence of maturity. For example, someone under five years old may take a sarcastic statement literally or struggle to understand the nuances of sarcasm (they may think someone is lying). As per Pexman, the understanding that sarcasm can be humorous comes last of all. "That develops particularly late," she shared. "At around nine or 10 years of age on average." Experts refer to this learning as a child's developmental arc, which appears to follow the emergence of "theory of mind," that is, a child’s capacity to understand another’s intentions.


Results from Pexman's most recent studies indicate that a child's home environment can strongly influence their understanding and use of sarcasm. For instance, if a child's parents use sarcasm, the child is much more likely to develop the ability themselves. The psycholinguist explained, "By around four, children develop the ability to take the perspective of another person and to recognize that the belief someone might hold in their mind is different from their own." By the time they are teenagers, children can master these complex skills. It should not be surprising that teens enjoy being creative with this newly-found skill.


Kathrin Rothermich, an expert at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, agrees with Pexman. She believes sarcasm can be a means of dealing with frustration or stress. She asserted, "It can be a way of letting off steam." One of her latest studies concluded that depressed and anxious individuals' use of sarcasm increased over the course of the pandemic. This may reflect how sarcasm is utilized as a coping mechanism. Therefore, Pexman finds value in training teens to use sarcasm. In order to do so, she has published 'Sydney Gets Sarcastic,' a storybook that provides multiple examples of sarcasm and the reasons it was used. In a recent experiment on children aged five to six, she showed that children who read and discussed the story found it easier to detect sarcastic statements in a subsequent test. So, for parents struggling with sarcastic teens, you may have nothing to worry about. Praise your kids for their intelligence instead!

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