Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Taming the Teenage Eye Roll

Eye rolls communicate contempt.

There is a long and interesting story published today in the New York Times that asks whether we can teach emotional intelligence.  It begins with a lovely story of a kindergarten teacher coaching his young students on what they might say when an angry parent makes them feel scared.

It struck a nerve.  A few days ago, I spent several hours with a young woman and her mom. Their current relationship is very tense for a lot of different reasons—money, the stress many recent college grads feel trying to find work in still bad economic times, differences in values, really bad communication skills, identity crises . . .History. But there was still a core to the relationship that came through. The mom had just driven eight hours to deliver a load of belongs for her daughter to help her set up her first apartment, including practical gifts of boxes of groceries and bales of toilet paper.  

As my teenager and I helped them unload the car, our guests' conversations grated on my ear. Every remark the mom made was greeted with an exasperated sigh, a frustrated rebuttal and an eye roll—either literal or dripping from the daughter's voice.  

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When we entered the kitchen, I hugged my son, thanking him.  

"There's one thing I really, really, really appreciate about you, kid."

"What?"

"You never eyeroll.  Even when you're really annoyed."

"It's hard sometimes.  I get really frustrated.  But I stop myself."

"Yeah, me too.  But you just can't do it."

"I know."


John Gottman, one of the first and best observational researchers focusing on marital relationships, says that an eye roll observed during an argument in the first months of marriage is one of the key markers predicting divorce. It is a clear indicator of contempt—one of "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" that undermines relationships. (Criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness are the oher three.)

Eye rolling is one of those prototypical teenage habits. It is a clear message to parents that what they are saying is lame.  When combined with flouncing or reluctant obedience, it clearly communicates that teen compliance is there because of parental power assertion, not out of cooperative spirit, agreement, or even acknowledgement that the parent has a right to make the request or have the opinion.  

I don't know why neither of my kids roll their eyes at me. There are lots of times I suspect they think I'm lame, many times I know they disagree with me, and even more when they don't want to do the chores or homework I'm making them do.  

But I do have a few hypotheses.

First, I try never to communicate contempt towards them or, frankly, towards anyone else.  We do learn from the people around us.

Second, I don't let them.  We spend a lot of time with folks in our family.  Starting when they were little, I was fine with them yelling at me.  I've certainly yelled at them and at their dad.  But as soon as things started getting nasty - when I felt I was being treated with disrespect, when criticism moved from specific behaviors to character or long sweeping statements - I shut it down.  I don't like being treated like that.  I don't treat other people like that. I told me kids that.  They stopped.  It never became a habit.  

Even now, when one is an adult and the other marching into high school, it just takes a raised eyebrow for them to pull back in the midst of an argument and get back into the real issue - why they're mad at me.  Without those Four Horsemen.  Any dyad that is really engaged with each other is going to disagree.  But how we disagree matters.

What I liked about the Times article was that it started with kids so young.  It began with a teacher helping kids tell someone that they didn't like how the way they were being treated made them feel.  That's important for kids to do.  It's also important for parents to do.  

We all learn from each other.

 

 

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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