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Sarcasm in Teens May be Good News

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

Parents of teenagers everywhere may find that headline a bit baffling, but research on sarcastic traits shows that it's actually an important developmental stage for teenagers. Whilst young children don't get sarcasm – by the time they're teens, it can be their default mode.

Teenager with a sarcastic expression

We are often reminded of Oscar Wilde's jibe that "sarcasm is the lowest form of wit" while forgetting that the famous twister of words immediately qualified his statement by adding "but the highest form of intelligence".

Parents or teachers of teenagers, in particular, may find it hard to believe that this linguistic quirk is a sign of a flexible and inventive mind.

Yet that is exactly what psychologists and neuroscientists have been arguing. They have found that sarcasm requires the brain to jump through numerous hoops to arrive at a correct interpretation, requiring more brainpower than literal statements. And although it's often dismissed as juvenile snark, sarcasm is actually evidence of maturity – as it takes years for a child's developing brain to fully grasp and master it.

"It can be quite challenging," says Penny Pexman, a psycholinguist at the University of Calgary.

The mental effort pays off. Sarcasm allows us to add much-needed nuance to our interactions, softening the blows of our insults or adding a playful tease to a compliment. There is even some evidence that it can prime us to be more creative and that it can help us to vent negative emotions when we’re feeling down.

Her latest studies have shown that a child's home environment can strongly influence their understanding and use of sarcasm. If the parents use sarcasm, the children are much more likely to develop the ability themselves.

"By around four, children develop the ability to take the perspective of another person and to recognise that the belief someone might hold in their mind is different from their own," Pexman says. Sarcasm is complex because the child must both understand the actual belief of the speaker and the ways they intend their words to be interpreted by the other person – a two-step process that takes time for a child to master. (In general, children under seven find it hard to hold two potentially opposing ideas in mind.)

By the time they are teens, many children have mastered these complex skills – and it is perhaps not surprising that they then enjoy experimenting with them, and testing their effects on others.

Pexman is so convinced of sarcasm’s importance that she has now started designing training programmes to help those with an underdeveloped sense of sarcastic irony.


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