How to react when teenagers roll their eyes at something you say or do
When a teenager rolls their eyes during a conversation, a parent should control the urge to call out the behaviour and instead wait until the reaction stops before continuing the conversation
When teenagers roll their eyes, the meaning of their non-verbal message is not hard for parents to decode. And when it first appears, it often ushers in a new chapter of the child-parent relationship - one that requires patience and fortitude from the grown-ups.
"It's important to understand that teenagers are going through a time of change and are hypersensitive, because they're in a very raw period of time developmentally, when they are trying to separate from their families and become individuals," says Dr Alexandra Barzvi, a psychologist who is co-host of the radio show About Our Kids in the US. "So any time they feel like you're judging them or criticising them or are angry with them, they feel vulnerable and go into shut-down mode and break the lines of communication. Rolling their eyes is their way of expressing their disagreement, resentment or frustration with what you're saying or doing."
What also makes it difficult for parents is that the disrespectful teenage eye roll is a dramatic departure from their child's earlier behaviour, which was often characterised by cooperation and admiration.
"Between the ages of six and 12, children are pleasant, and they listen better and develop interests. They're still very affectionate and think their parents are great," says Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. "So when teens start to pull away from their parents, it's a very abrupt rupture."
The phase will end, eventually, but until the tumultuous teen years run their course, parents have a challenging road to navigate, especially when it comes to effective communication in light of all that dismissive eye rolling. The first thing is to stay calm.
"Parents should try not to express their anxiety or their anger, because teenagers are sensitive to their emotional state," Barzvi says.
Still, when a teenager rolls their eyes during a conversation, a parent should control the urge to call out the behaviour and tell her to stop. Rather, stand and wait until the insolent, albeit non-verbal, reaction stops before continuing the conversation.
"When you attend to negative behaviour, it increases because they know it annoys you," Barzvi says. "Teens, just like three-year-olds, know when they're misbehaving. They wouldn't roll their eyes at their teacher or their best friend's mother. By waiting, you let them know that their behaviour is unwelcome."
Instead, take a deep breath and suggest a timeout until your teen is calmer, Barzvi advises. "You can say: 'I'm trying to talk to you, and I can see that you're not interested, so why don't I come back later?'"
It also shows that you recognise the child is frustrated or unhappy, and that you're there to listen when they're ready to talk.
In the meantime, parents need to take care of their own emotional well-being during the eye-rolling phase. With teens using it to seek a new level of independence, it can create a void for their parents, who start re-evaluating their own lives for better or for worse, Senior says.
"When kids start holding their parents in contempt and bitterly catalogue everything dumb they've ever done, they tend to unmask all the other problems going on in the life of the parents, such as a job that is unsatisfying or a spouse who's disrespectful," she says. "Parents of teens have to make sure their own identity is well-shored up from other places … so that when the kids exit, their lives are not empty."
Tribune News Service