When teen rolls eyes, parents must maintain control
When teens roll their eyes, the meaning of their nonverbal message is not hard for parents to decode. And when it first starts appearing, 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 psychologist Alexandra Barzvi, who is co-host of “About Our Kids” on Sirius XM’s Doctor Radio channel. “So any time they feel like you’re judging them or criticizing 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, 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 behavior, often characterized by cooperation and admiration.
“Between the ages of 6 and 12, children are pleasant, and they listen better and develop interests, and 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” (Ecco).
“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. A stoic reaction may help.
“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 her eyes during a conversation, a parent should control the urge to call out the behavior and tell her to stop. Rather, stand and wait until the insolent, albeit nonverbal, reaction stops before continuing the conversation.
“When you attend to negative behavior, it increases because they know it annoys you,” Barzvi says. “Teens, just like 3-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 behavior 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?’ You'll get more bang for your buck if you try to help teens understand the emotions that they're trying to communicate underneath the eye rolling.”