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Happy pupWe’ve been considering how to deal with middle school kids (and older) with a sassy attitude or way of speaking. Our Level 1 plan was to cut the kids some slack; recognize that they not too skilled at coping with the pressures of school, friends, etc; and encourage them to develop other ways of coping rather than blowing up on family. But what if things get better but there is still need for improvement?

Level 2 – One of the main developmental tasks of teens is to become aware of themselves and their impact on others. If a middle school kid has been around kids “with an attitude” all day at school, using a disrespectful tone of voice or having a sassy manner may seem “normal,” after all, it’s what kids have been doing around him all day! You may notice middle school kids, even late elementary school age kids, “experimenting” with tone of voice, facial expressions, body language. Learning to read non-verbal cues is incredibly complex and one of THE main tasks of adolescence. We can’t believe she doesn’t know that tossing her hair and using “that tone of voice” is going to get her in trouble. Of course WE know. . . but then again, we already went to middle school!

As a Level 2 intervention, you may want to consider “mirroring” for your young teen. Do your best to not do this in your own smart alec way, but offer, “You may not know how you look right now. THIS is how you look (imitate what you see).” Then you may want to say something like, “Communicating is not only about our words. Our tone of voice and body language often ‘say’ far more than our words alone. What I ‘heard’ from you a minute ago is more like, ‘Mom, you’re such an idiot. Don’t you know anything!’  I’m not sure if that’s what you meant to communicate to me but if it’s not, you might want to check your tone of voice and how your looks speak! If you DID mean that, you may want to check how important it is to you to treat people you love in a kind way. . . just a thought”

I’m sure you’ve heard kids speak rudely to a sibling and when called on it by a parent say something like, “I only said, move your foot!” . . . but the tone of voice was vicious. Working to teach kids about the importance of voice tone, an activity I have teens do is to take turns saying the following words in as many ways as they can think of: “I’m coming to your house tonight.” It can be angry, threatening, sexy, delighted, excited, questioning. All the same words, but so many ways to speak them, each with its own nuance.

On a related but different note, body language and facial expressions are also potent communicators our teens need to become aware of. You might begin this discussion reminding them of someone they love who can be really intimidating, e.g. grandfathers? Letting them dissect what is scary about that person can help them become aware of what messages they are reading unconsciously: eyebrows, grimace, deep voice, not engaging in eye contact, etc. It can also be fun to turn off the sound in a movie or TV and make up new dialogue to match or mismatch what we see.

It is useful to know that as human beings, about 85% of what we communicate is NON-VERBAL!!!! That means words (spoken, texted, printed) convey only 15% of the message we intended. That leaves a very big margin for error. People draw conclusions about us, judge us, accept/reject us far more often by non-verbal communications than by the words we actually say! Now that deserves some thought . . . and some practice!