When Sass Is the New Tantrum

by Candy Mickels Mejia October 06, 2017

A kid with long hair

I often doubt that I’m mature enough to be a parent. I still stifle a laugh every time I hear a toddler shout “NO!” in defiance to his poor mom. Lately I find I’m caught between laughter and surprise when my own child, now a middle schooler, cracks wise. We are a long way from her shouting “NO!” but we have entered a new era: The Sassy Years. Admittedly I struggled a bit when my oldest was a toddler, but I was a preschool teacher before I was a mom so I knew that at ages two and three children are establishing their independence. They are testing the waters of asserting control and making choices. Toddlers are at a crossroads between being babies and becoming “big” kids, and with that comes new emotions, new vocabulary, and new physical abilities. Sound familiar? Because I have bad news: The tween years are basically the toddler years on steroids. Oh, sure, you think it can’t be as bad as the toddler years, but it’s all relative. Your tween/young teen has a whole set of tools in her arsenal that she didn’t have as a toddler. Plus peer pressure. And electronic devices with which to ignore you. And the uncanny ability to pick up all of your bad habits. Let’s just say that you use sarcasm frequently in your day-to-day conversations. Who can blame you? Sarcasm has permeated our language, thanks to sitcoms and multiple online platforms that reward witty one-liners. But what happens when your tween utters “Way to go, Mom” when you drop your phone or run into a wall. (I may have some coordination issues.) It’s not cool to hear your mini-me ridicule you. What’s more, because of your own smart mouth she doesn’t seem to take you seriously when you reprimand her or give her The Look. So not only do we have nearly full-size humans sassing us, we’ve probably undermined our ability to discipline them because we can’t stop being smart alecks ourselves. Way to go, us. Don’t panic yet. Our tweens may have new tools in their arsenals, but so do we. Though weird behavior patterns and tantrums may have thrown us for a loop when they were toddlers, eventually we learned that there’s usually a reason for that behavior, like being overtired, over-hungry, or overstimulated. We eventually figured it all out, or at least figured it out enough to survive. Much like the tween years mirror the toddler years for kids behavior-wise, the explanations for their behaviors can also mirror the toddler years. I learned this in a child development class years ago, but now I need this information for my own kids instead of someone else’s. My trusty child development textbook “The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence” by Kathleen Stassen Berger says tweens who talk back may be trying to (unconsciously) establish with their parents that they are no longer little kids. Young teens who can’t stop with the sarcasm may be masking real emotions and sensitivities they don’t yet know how to deal with. Sometimes they are just modeling the behavior the adults in their lives have shown them and aren’t aware of what is inappropriate for them to say or do. This behavior can sting for us as parents because we take it personally. We suddenly feel like we don’t know our children anymore. It can also sting when those remarks are actually disrespectful. We raised them better than that, didn’t we? We did. We just aren’t done yet. We can take those moments to remind our offspring about our family’s values regarding respect. I’ve found my daughters often don’t realize they’ve been disrespectful and are even embarrassed when I bring it to their attention. A sharp wit is a personality trait that may not go away. Instead of squashing those natural impulses, we can guide children towards respectful and thoughtful behavior. Sarcasm and humor aren’t always inappropriate, so bringing thoughtfulness into the picture allows them to fine tune the behavior themselves. As we did when they were toddlers, we can still ask them how they would feel if their own words/actions were used against them. It also helps if we acknowledge to our children the (perhaps less than ideal) example we have set. Putting our language and our roles in context for them may not make them happy, but it’s important to establish the difference in expectations between parents and children for the sake of consistency in discipline. This is another one of those parenting issues in which we have to pick our battles. Sometimes it’s better to bite your tongue and move on instead of reprimanding a child every time they say something you wish they hadn’t. Continued problems with rudeness or disrespect shouldn’t be brushed aside, however. While it is considered normal for adolescents to back talk sometimes, repeated insolence, rudeness, or disrespect towards parents, teachers, or peers are signs something is not right. Enlisting the help of a professional may be necessary to get to the root of the issue. Ultimately, sass or backtalk or whatever you want to call it is – in normal circumstances – like an emotional growth spurt in your child’s search for identity. It isn’t so much a problem to solve as it is an opportunity to build your relationship with your child. We should guide them through this stage of life so they can succeed as independent adults who don’t regularly get shunned for inappropriate, smart aleck remarks. I still have work to do in this department myself. I started asking my 11-year-old to consider “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” before she speaks. She unapologetically adds “Is it funny?” to the list every time – after which I struggle to stifle my laughter.

Candy Mickels Mejia


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