Comebacks

By Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D.

Shut up!” your daughter says, words that instantly make you flinch. You can’t help but think, “This is not the sort of language we use in our home!” or “I would never have been so rude and disrespectful to my mother!” Or is your daughter just trying out new ways of communicating?
Before you react, remember that your daughter’s words may well be different from yours because her world is different. Young people grow up today with more freedom to express themselves and less fear of authority figures. Also, understanding how your daughter speaks to her friends may require learning a whole new lexicon. “Shut up!” is not necessarily an impolite version of “Be quiet” or “Leave me alone.” What you hear (or overhear) may be snippets of the special language your daughter develops to cement her bond with friends and manage difficult social situations. For example, early on she learns to use comebacks to deflect insults or harsh words. A handy retort, instantly recognizable to her peers, says, “I heard you” and gives her time to compose herself before she responds.
It is important to understand this in order to read her message accurately. Today, for example, “Shut up!” is not usually hostile, but rather a lighthearted comeback not unlike “Get out of here!” or You’ve got to be kidding!” How can you tell the difference? Listen carefully to the tone and quality of your daughter’s voice along with her words. Depending on how she says them, the same words can have various meanings. An even or lilting tone tells you she’s not angry or intending to be aggressive. Watch her body language, too; girls convey 90% of their messages nonverbally. If in doubt, ask her directly: “What do you mean?” or “Are you upset?”
Although you support her skillful use of comebacks and certain phrases to fit in, sometimes the new edge in her words will make you recoil. In fact, you may be saddened by the loss of softer, more courteous manners that used to be expected—and enjoyed. What can you do? As always, draw the line at words that are unacceptable to you and your family. Try, “That expression seems offensive. Let’s find a better, gentler way to say that.” As she grows, make a distinction between the words your daughter might use with her friends and those she uses with adults. Tell her what you can’t abide: “I don’t care for that term. Please don’t use it around me.” That teaches her an important lesson about good communication: It is always wise to consider how her listener will hear her words.

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