Annie Keeling: Go ahead … roll your eyes at me
It seems each generation just gets better at eye rolling, that seemingly practiced, passive-aggressive expression of disdain, exasperation, and/or disapproval. Perhaps it has evolved into a developmental milestone of tweens and teens — and doctors should be measuring their accomplishment on it during annual physical exams!
Seriously, chronic eye rolling can drive loved ones crazy. I often receive questions like, “Is eye rolling disrespectful?”, “When is rude too rude?” or “Should I make it stop?”
Many of these questions come from parents or grandparents of teenage girls. According to Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale University who studies facial expressions, it is more common in females. “Among 13-year-old girls, it is a premiere way of indicating rejection or contempt. It’s really meant to be seen. It’s done with purpose.”
But eye rolling isn’t the only disrespectful teenage behavior — and boys do plenty of their own.
One of the best takes on rude behavior in teens — including eye rolling — is in “Blessings of a B Minus,” by Dr. Wendy Mogel.
Mogel writes about the time in society that young people were required to show the utmost respect to adults. The slightest roll of an eye was grounds for punishment. Some older folks reminisce about the days of “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Yet, those times also included staying quiet about family problems, submissive deference to a patriarch, discrimination of all kinds, and gaining compliance through intimidation.
The parents that I know hope to use more sensitivity and compassion with the raising of their kids. Along with increased closeness and directness often comes more rudeness.
Why so rude?
Self-centered: The teen years are the height of self-centeredness. The whole world revolves around that individual. Others’ needs or concerns are not readily apparent or important. As maturing occurs, parents may see snippets of “decentering,” a term psychologist Jean Piaget used to describe one’s capacity to see another’s point of view. Yet when anxious, tired, or stressed, that newer cognitive skill of decentering goes out the window.
Separation: With reasonable limits, our children’s expression of annoyance and exasperation can be healthy signs of learning separation from us. This drive to separate is set deep in the human experience. A young person’s autonomy is hard to assert while nestled in a safe cocoon of childhood.
One of the ways kids test out the difficulties of separation is pushing us away with behavior, attitude, and facial expressions. This is the eye-roll, door slam, chore refusal, “I hate you,” that often characterizes teenager.
Release pressure: Rudeness is also a way for teens to release pressure or stress. They often need to blow off the steam that builds up from life’s expectations or even just living inside a body of raging hormones.
While this release can really hurt our feelings, our kids need us to be safely in control of our emotions. Notice this scenario. The child screams, “I hate you. You never let me do anything,” and slams and locks the bedroom door. Cue the parent who starts banging on the door and yells, “Open the door this instant. You will not speak to me that way.”
Wendy Mogul writes: “By reacting to your teen’s provocation, you lose your position of authority.”
The key to helping the child find reasonable limits while continuing to teach respect is to remain calm, patient, and level-headed even when surrounded with disrespect.
That’s a tall order!
Kids are watching closely to see how you react. What standards will you define as too much? How will you react when they challenge your standards?
Here are some helpful points to consider.
If you expect your child to never roll an eye at your request that they do dishes, never slam a door when you say no, or never fall apart in hysterics after a bad day, then you may have unreal expectations for a 21st century teen. This kind of inflexibility can be a set-up for failure.
If the leash is too short, then that severity may cause an overt amount of rude behavior as the child expresses their discomfort.
Leniency has its own pitfalls. If you’re not clear on what you want or lack strength in follow-through, kids will feel insecure. If you allow them to call you bad names, destroy property, or refuse to comply, they may push you even harder to find your limits.
Young people are ready to be part of the guideline/consequence discussion, helping to set the boundaries and limits they will agree to follow. Clarity helps child and parent follow new expectations.
Make your list
Make a personalized list of what behaviors are appropriate in your family. Each family will have a different list. When naming your standards, look around at other families with teens that you admire. How are they treating one another? What impresses you as mature behavior?
When our son entered adolescence, my husband and I were inspired by Mogel’s idea to discuss two lists together. This helped us decide where we stood, not give in to pressure (“everyone else says that to their parents …”) and not second-guess ourselves.
Considered rude/disrespectful behaviors
Insults us in front of others
Curses directly at us or other family members
Slams doors frequently
Doesn’t answer other adults’ direct questions
Break things that belong to others without replacing, repairing, or apologizing
Breaks agreements (like phone limits, stays out past curfew, not where he says he will be, chore refusal)
Unwilling to make polite, small talk (especially with our friends)
Behavior we would try to ignore
Occasional door slamming
Cursing in front of us but not at us
Grunting or mumbling under one’s breath
Profanity or impolite tone with friends
Getting mad at us for irrational reasons
Lawyering (trying to win his side of an argument at all costs)
Complaining before actually doing homework, chores, agreements
Try not to get stuck in a belief that your child will remain perpetually rude. With both external guidance (you play a major role) and internal maturity (biology is on your side), kids will learn to decenter.
In the meantime, your teen will respond well to clear limits. They also respond to your investment of goodwill. Find where you can say yes outside of your own comfort level. This kind of surprise “yes” will register inside them and build a bank of new connection in this ever-changing relationship of parent and child.
It’s also important to focus more on the things the teens are doing RIGHT – and understand that all that eye rolling is not really about you!
Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides local and distance parent coaching. Connect with Keeling at email@example.com or 530-210-1100.
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