How cynicism has hurt your health

"Well, you did a great job" - dealing with irony in upbringing

It is not unusual for adults to exchange ironic remarks. “Thank you for bringing me more work today.” “Of course I think it's great that my vacation was canceled.” “The hairdresser did a great job. You look great. " Often the following sentence is added to such statements: "That was meant ironically", attached. We are familiar with these remarks and can usually assess them correctly. But how is it with children and adolescents?

1. "I swallowed a clown today" - humor in children and adolescents

Children are very happy and humorous from an early age. You come up with lots of fun things and actions and have a bunch of jokes on your mind. Sometimes children even make fun of themselves and then have a lot of fun. When old and young laugh and have fun together, it can be very liberating and strengthens the relationship with one another. A humorous togetherness creates a sense of community and laughter is still the best medicine. If you manage to laugh at your own mistakes, it relaxes everyday upbringing and family life1.

Despite this humorous basis, the irony of adults is difficult for children to access and usually cannot be understood at all. Children cannot correctly assess statements made ironically by their parents or other caregivers. That sometimes unsettles them.

But what does irony actually mean?

2. "That was only meant ironically" - an explanation of the terms

The Duden defines the term irony as "fine, hidden mockery with which someone tries to hit something by making it ridiculous under the conspicuous appearance of actual approval."2

To put it in your own words, it means that something is actually not called good, but behind the positive statement “You did really well“Hidden. You secretly hope that the other person can think outside the box and understand that you mean exactly the opposite.

That sounds complicated and that's exactly what it is. Irony is a very complicated and complex type of humor. The irony must be distinguished from the lie. An ironic statement is made consciously and the opposite should, in contrast to the lie, in any case notice that you actually mean it differently. Nor should irony be confused with sarcasm or cynicism. Ironic statements sound much more elegant, but can just as hurt and unsettle the person concerned3.

3. “Bravo Max, you will definitely be a math genius” - examples of irony and its possible effect on children and young people

"You did a great job."

The three-year-old Sabrina made a mess while eating in the restaurant. Sabrina's blouse and part of the tablecloth are dirty. Her parents notice and Sabrina's father says: "Class. Sabrina. You did a great job. I couldn't have done it better. "

Sabrina is insecure: have my parents praised me now? But I messed up. That's actually not great, and if it's great, why do my parents look so grim? I don't understand that at all now, so I better start crying. Sabrina is unsettled by her parents' behavior. She knows that the mess in itself is nothing great and reacts irritated when her father praises her for it. At the same time, however, she also notices from the father's tone that something is wrong. She cannot assess the whole situation at all. A clear statement from the parents about spillage and handing out a napkin would have been more helpful in this case.

"You will definitely become a math genius."

Nine year old Max comes home with a bad math assignment. He shows the work to his parents. His mother exclaims: “Well bravo Max. Very well done. We can register you at the university right away. You are sure to become a math genius. "

Max is at an age at which he can classify his mother's statements better than little Sabrina. He knows that a six in math is not a good grade. Even so, he is irritated by what his mother says to him. Why isn't mom comforting me? I learned and wanted to get a good grade, and I'm definitely not going to be a math genius. I can’t do anything and I’m not really useful for anything. Max understands from his level of development that his mother is actually making fun of him. This hurts him a lot and is certainly not helpful with regard to the next math problem. In this situation he would actually have needed understanding and support and the prospect that the next grade would definitely be better.

"You look good. Like the Pumuckl! "

Fourteen-year-old Bettina comes to the youth center on Friday afternoon. Your supervisor sees them and laughs: “You look great. With the red hair we can register you for the next episode of Pumuckl. " Bettina begins to cry and storms out of the room.

Young people understand exactly what is meant by ironic statements. It is very clear to Bettina that her hairstyle looks terrible and that she makes a fool of herself. It doesn't help if her supervisor later apologizes several times and explains to her that he was just kidding. In their self-discovery and orientation phase, young people in particular are often very sensitive and insecure about their external appearance. Even the coolest guys need to be accepted and accepted deep down. Although adolescents can categorize ironic statements correctly in terms of their intellect, they sometimes react very sensitively during the phase of identity development.

4. “Am I being praised or admonished now?” - When do children start to understand irony?

Ironic remarks often contain an indirect admonition and evaluation as a hidden message. But children usually take everything literally. Deciphering these ambiguities is still completely alien to them4.

In order to understand irony, children must be able to resolve the contradiction in meaning of what is being said. Learning to decipher the real intent behind what is being said is sometimes difficult, even for adults3.

From a scientific point of view, the understanding of irony depends very much on the social-cognitive and linguistic abilities of the children. Therefore, it is not clear when children can see through ironic remarks5. Some children only understand the meaning and background of irony when they go to secondary school, explains Dorothee Roeb, child and youth therapist at the Kinderschutzbund in Aachen6.  

In addition, children don't always find everything funny that adults find funny. Parents and caregivers should keep this in mind when making funny, ironic comments to children.

5. Tips for parents and professionals in dealing with irony

At Children up to elementary school age are better off avoiding ironic remarks. Children of this age are simply not yet able to see through these complicated communication strategies in terms of their development. But that doesn't mean that you can't have fun with children. On the contrary. Children love it when their parents or caregivers come up with fun things. In this case you can really say: "Children are fun for everyone".

You do not have to pretend to be artificially in everyday parenting. One or the other comment just slips out unconsciously. The classic here is really the sentence: “You did that great”, which can be interpreted either way. If you make the remark to your children and mean it ironically, explain to your children the situation and what it really means. Explaining and talking to each other is still the best way to achieve mutual understanding. This will prevent your child from feeling insecure and not being able to correctly assess your comment.

Older children and teenagers can certainly also in relaxed situations and with good contact laugh at one or the other ironic statement. As I said, you don't have to weigh everything on the gold scales in everyday parenting. Even so, as parents and educators, you should be sensitive to ironic comments. Adolescents who are in the middle of puberty are already unsettled enough about their own personality. There is a risk that they will simply take the ironic statement too seriously and get into something that was not really intended. But even in such a case, clarification afterwards will certainly help.

In any case, stay relaxed when dealing with the irony. Or as Sören Kierkegaard remarks ironically: “Unfortunately, everything that you will encounter cannot be avoided7“.

further reading

Charmaine Liebertz (2016): Das Schatzbuch des Lachens: Basics, methods and games for an upbringing with heart and humor. Paperback - October 1, 2016. Don Bosco-Verlag.


(1) Rogge, Jan-Uwe Dr. (2018): Humor in Upbringing. (accessed on January 9, 2019)

(2) Duden (2018): Online dictionary. (accessed on January 9, 2019)

(3) Haug-Schnabel, Gabriele Dr. : Dealing with irony. DGUV children 4, 8-10. (accessed on December 12, 2018)

(4) Leifgen, Ingrid (2011): That's no laughing matter! Sparrow 3/2011. (accessed on December 18, 2018)

(5) Famula, Noemi (2015): Irony in Childhood. Connections of social-cognitive and linguistic skills with the development of a competence for irony before starting school. Bachelor thesis. (accessed on 07.01.2019)

(6) Roeb, Dorothea (2011) in: Leifgen, Ingrid: That's no laughing matter! Sparrow 3/2011. (accessed on December 18, 2018)

(7) Kierkegard, Sören: (accessed on 07.01.2019)

Further contributions by the author can be found here in the family handbook


Christina Zehetner (née Kursawe) is an educator and social worker. She has many years of practical experience in outpatient and inpatient child and youth welfare and worked for several years in the youth welfare office. The author is currently working as a freelancer at the Institute for Early Education in Munich. As a consultant, she also holds humorous seminars and lectures for families and professionals.




Listed on January 16, 2019