It is often said that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor, since sarcastic comments are most commonly used to provoke laughter at someone else’s expense. To the chagrin of many adults, when it comes to sarcasm, teenagers often seem to have the art of sarcasm honed to perfection. The reasons why teenagers are so sarcastic are few, but all are common in the age group.
While many people find sarcasm undesirable, one individual’s sarcastic comment is another person’s banter. One reason teenagers speak sarcastically is in a simple attempt to provoke laughter, which is one common form of attention-seeking behavior common to adolescences. According to Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., attention seeking is common in children because they are still trying to figure out life. Attention-seeking behavior is most often attributed to self-esteem issues, and is often a way to compensate for a lack of self-confidence.
Used as a form of ego defense, in which a person engages in a behavior they believe will protect their ego from perceived harm or risk, teenagers often use sarcasm to make themselves feel better by attacking or belittling others. According to Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., using sarcasm is a symptom of fear, including envy and jealousy, and is used by those who feel a need to slight others. This is common in the teen years as children struggle to gain a sense of self. As Washington, D.C-based anger specialist and therapist Steven Stosny points out, sarcastic people feel a need to protect themselves by only letting others see a superficial part of who they are.”
Attention, Approval and Modeling
Teens use sarcasm to gain the attention and approval of others. This is commonly done within peer groups, such as groups of classmates or athletic teams, but sarcasm can -- and often does -- extend to the home. As with all children, teenagers learn their behavior from others. Teenagers will routinely engage in sarcastic, attention-seeking behavior at home if parents demonstrate that sarcasm is acceptable by actively modeling the behavior for their teenagers. As children enter adolescence, the teen’s parents typically become their new roles models -- and teens pick up much of their behavior from the adults in their lives.
Hearing criticism from others, especially from peers or adults whom a teen looks up to, can feel threatening to a teenager who is struggling to discover who she is. As a result, teenagers frequently use sarcasm to deflect criticism that friends,teachers or family members may direct toward them. By trying to downplay a negative remark or trying to turn a criticism into a joke, a less-than flattering comment from someone the teen has a relationship with may seem to hurt less. Additionally, turning the comment back on the person who disparaged her enables the teen to retaliate in a humorous way.
Lack of Verbal Skills
From a psychological perspective, sarcasm is a more benign way to express negativity then by being direct. For example, teens who lack sophisticated verbal skills will use sarcasm as a way to talk back to authority figures like teachers and parents, without being openly confrontational. That way, if the authority figure calls out the teen for talking back, the teen can say that he was only making a joke.
- Psychology Today: Field Guide: Sarcastic Masters: Elizabeth Svoboda,
- Mind Compass: The 8 Goals of Adolescent Misbehavior
- Smithsonianmag.com: The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right: Richard Chin
- Lawrence Journal-World: Double Take: Adults Model Bad Behaviors for Teens: Dr. Wes Crenshaw and Katie Guyot
- Springfield news-Sun: How to Stop Your Teen’s Sarcasm in 3 Steps: Greg Ramey
- Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway; Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.
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