“I was just kidding! Can’t you take a joke?” If your child gives you this excuse after he’s said or done something rude, it might leave you feeling frustrated and unsure of how to handle the situation. Later, you might question yourself when he says, “But I didn’t mean it that way.” In this article, James Lehman explains why disrespect and inappropriate behavior are really nothing to laugh at—no matter what the excuse.

“But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter to you why he does it. That’s like saying, ‘He lies because he’s afraid.’ That doesn’t matter; it’s an excuse.”

We all know that a sense of humor is vital. Kids learn humor from their parents, their peers, their teachers, and from T.V. They absorb it and take it all in and then they experiment. One of the things with which they experiment is how they talk to their parents. When they’re feeling hostile, lonely, depressed, or upset, one of the things they try to do is give a smart answer or sarcastic joke. There’s so much of this type of behavior on T.V. One guy says something and the other guy gives a rude response. It’s very much a part of our culture. Kids learn to mimic that kind of communication from an early age because they think it’s cool.

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Kids also have peers around them using sarcastic and mean language. They pick up on that because they’re afraid that they’re going to be the next target. Often, children manage by using that humor themselves. It’s similar to a child who’s afraid of being bullied—so he becomes a bully himself. Much of this reaction and attitude is fear-based. I personally think it’s good for parents to adopt a philosophy of, “This is our home and this is the way we talk to each other. I don’t care what your friends said at school. I don’t care what your brother said in the parking lot. I’m telling you, in this home, this is how we talk to each other.” Lay that out for your kids so they understand that there’s an “inside” and an “outside.” Kids often don’t really comprehend the concept of there being an inside, which is your home, and an outside, which is the world. I think you can explain this to your child by saying, “When you’re inside, you have to follow certain rules and expectations. That’s your responsibility. If not, there will be consequences. If you’re outside, and you get yourself into trouble, then we’ll deal with that when the time comes. But at home, this is the way you need to act.”

How to Respond to: “I Was Just Kidding!”

When your child responds to your reprimand or someone being upset with “I was just kidding,” I think you should say, “What you’re saying is hurtful. I need you to stop.” If he doesn’t stop, give him a consequence. I think an effective one is to take away two hours of phone or computer time (or whatever it is your child values) and build up from there. You can set it up by saying, “If you’re able to talk in a nice way to people for the next two hours, you get your phone back.”

If your child lies and then says, “I was kidding,” you can say, “Well, you’re going to get consequences for that lie. Don’t kid about the truth.”

Young Kids

When your child is young, up until the age of six or so, you can just correct them when they’re joking in an inappropriate way. The kind of thing you would say to a young child is, “We don’t joke by saying hurtful things. And that was hurtful.” If your child says it again, you should go ahead and give him a consequence. If your younger child uses a curse word, I also teach parents to say, “That’s a hurtful word. Don’t say it.” That way, you’re setting those limits and training him from an early age.

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When kids are in early adolescence, they may develop a much more challenging way of talking to you. At that age, they’re testing adult authority and they’re pushing limits. One of the ways they push the limits is through speech. Simply put, they want to see what they can get away with. I think parents have to be very, very responsive to that. If you let your child get away with a hurtful remark once, even if they’re “joking,” watch out—it’s much harder to deal with once they turn it into a habit.

I think if your child says something inappropriate and then he says he’s only kidding, you have to make it clear that it’s not going to fly. You can say, “We don’t kid that way. If you say hurtful things when you’re kidding, you’re going to be held responsible for them. There’s no excuse for verbal abuse.”

If you’re not sure if what your child is saying is hurtful, I think you should ask him point blank, “What did you just say?” Speak very seriously, so your child knows you’re listening. If his comment is not way off-color or hurtful, you can say, “Oh, all right, that is funny.” But if it is, I think you should say, “Listen, that’s a hurtful thing to say and it’s not funny. You know what we said about joking in a mean way.” And then give him a consequence.

Is this kind of behavior part of adolescence? Absolutely. So is calling a parent by their first name instead of “Mom” and “Dad.” These are all ways your child tests you and challenges your authority. Personally, I think it’s important to be called “Mom” and “Dad” because that’s your role as a parent. Think of it this way: your child doesn’t know how to relate to Tommy and Betty—he knows how to relate to Mom and Dad. Your title as a parent gives you authority and status. Kids will often try to test the limits by taking away your title, but I think it’s a mistake to go along with that.

“Joking” with Siblings and Others

What if your child hurts siblings’ or other people’s feelings and uses the “I was only joking” excuse? If you overhear your child being hurtful to a sibling or friend, don’t jump in right away unless it’s abusive. Try to see what the conversation is about—find out if the other child is doing the same thing. If the other child is using the same kind of language and tone, I think you have to leave it alone. Later on, you can comment and say, “I heard you and Max playing earlier today and I don’t think the things you were saying were very nice.”

If you find the hurtful joking is a one-way street, with one child being mean or rude and the other taking it, then you should intervene. I think you can pull your child aside, correct him and then say, “What can you say differently instead of saying this?” Hopefully he’ll think of something. If he can’t, suggest something to him. This is so important because it’s exactly what we want—we want our kids to be appropriate the next time they feel that way.

“You Take Everything Too Seriously!”

When you start to crack down on the mean joking in your household, many kids will say something like, “We can’t have fun around here anymore because you take everything too seriously.” I think you should say, “You’re right, I take hurtfulness very seriously. I take disrespect very seriously—and they’re no joking matter.” I think you can continue with, “On the other hand, I’ve heard you come up with jokes that aren’t disrespectful or hurtful, too. I think they’re really funny. Those are the kind of jokes that I accept. But the other ones are hurtful and I really don’t see their place in our family.”

Talk to Your Child about the Difference between Joking and Hurtful Language

I think it’s a good idea to talk to your child about the difference between joking and being hurtful—especially if you’re going to start calling them out on their language. Call them into the room and say, “That was a hurtful way to say what you said, and I don’t like it. Can you think of a different way to say it?”

Also, catch your child when they’re being good. If they make a funny joke, say, “See, that was really funny and appropriate. I really appreciate that.” Whenever you can, catch your child being good.

If you have a child who’s gotten a lot of attention and laughs for being smart alecky and wisecracking in a hurtful way and you want to put a stop to it, I also think you need to talk to them about what they’re doing. Sit down with your child when things are going well—not when there’s a crisis or when he’s angry. If your child is sitting in the living room, sit down next to him. I would tell him that you’ve decided that you find certain things offensive and you want to talk to him about it. And then you say, “The jokes that you make, even though you say you’re only kidding, are really hurtful. And as of today, you have to stop being hurtful and sarcastic to others. If you don’t, you’re going to be held responsible for that.” Give your child room to discuss what you’ve just told him by saying, “Do you have any questions? Would you like an example? Do you understand what I mean?” Give examples. Write some things down ahead of time.

I recommend that whenever you talk with your child, write down what you want to say on an index card in simple sentences so you don’t get distracted. If he’s resistant or explosive, you can say, “All right, well you have no video game privileges until you’re ready to talk about this.” Use the “Stop the Show” technique that I explain in the Total Transformation Program. Don’t give your child an audience for his outburst—just give him a consequence and leave the room.

I know some parents have children with behavioral or social problems who have learned to use humor to deflect or compensate for their lack of social or problem-solving skills. I’ve met many kids like that, and I was that kind of child myself. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter to you why he does it. That’s like saying, “He steals because he doesn’t have anything.” Or, “He lies because he’s afraid.” That doesn’t matter; it’s an excuse. Instead, we stop the behavior. We challenge it, we teach our kids other things, and we eliminate it— with no excuses.


James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (22)
  • Cecilia
    Excellent article😊😊
  • Carol


    My young teenage son makes all likes of loud 'ahhh' verbal noises which are not words just noises. He does this very often and it seems to be a habit. It is very frustrating as Injust wish he woilms communicate his frustration or whatever it is verbally. He know I don't like it. Shat are some suggestions to deal with this?

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you. It can be quite annoying when kids engage in these kinds of behaviors to express their displeasure rather than using their words. In addition, if your son realizes that he can push your emotional buttons by making these noises, this sense of control over youMore can be very reinforcing, especially for a teenager. As James Lehman points out in Moody Kids: How to Respond to Pouting, Whining and Sulking, it tends to be most effective to ignore your son’s noises as much as you can, while also working with him to develop more appropriate ways to communicate his thoughts. You might also consider offering a small incentive for each time he uses a more appropriate strategy, so he is motivated to practice these new skills. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your son. Take care.
  • TroubledTeacher
    I am not a parent or guardian, but I work with children on a day to day basis for 10 years. I am a 24 year old daycare teacher. I recently changed daycare centers I was working at. The children I worked with at my old center were extremely well-behavedMore (3-5 year olds). However, my new center has been having a lot of trouble with their 3-5 year olds (and even some of the older ones!). There is virtually no discipline, so the kids act out, pitch violent temper tantrums over being told to do something they do not want to do, talk back to their teachers and hit other children. Last week I saw a 5 year old roll around on the floor and scream like a toddler. I was appalled. They need discipline and structure in their day, but I don't know where to start. I have never seen a problem like this before in the 10 Years I have worked with children. Just today as soon as I got in the door, I got attitude served to me by two separate 3 year olds. I have only been at this center for not even a week. Please, please help. Never in my life I have ever seen this before...
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      We appreciate you writing in to Empowering Parents and sharing your story. I hear how much you are struggling with the behavior of the children at the new daycare center where you are working. Because we are a website aimed at helping people become more effective parents, weMore are limited in the advice and suggestions we can give to those outside of a direct parenting role. It may be helpful to speak with your supervisor or the director of the daycare program about your concerns, and how you can implement more structure and discipline within the classroom which will also be developmentally appropriate. We wish you the best going forward. Take care.
  • Tracy
    I have a 15 year old daughter that is taking nude pictures of herself and sending them to school boys and Men that she talks to on kik. She is also smoking pot. I've contacted the police. unless these men have physical contact with her there is nothing we canMore do. She runs away from home at least once a month, she steals from us, credit cards, money. we bought a heavy duty lock box to put all our electronics in, she broke into it to get a tablet so she can talk to these men. She lies about everything, I can't trust anything she tells me. I have 2 younger children and I don't want them to think its ok to do what she is doing. I'm worried. we've had her to multiple counselors, Because she is 15, counselors tell her she can refuse treatment. everyone I talk to can't do anything for us, Unless she physically hurts someone. Iv'e talked to parent advocate, it would cost us $3000 a month to put her away, we can't afford that! The cops tell us, well you have 3 more years and you can kick her out. Our family is destroyed because of this. I'm worried about my our two children because they see everything that is going on with her. what can I do?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear how much you are struggling right now with your 15 year old, and I’m glad that you’re here reaching out for support. I’m also glad to see that you have tried to use local resources to help you with your daughter, such as the police and counselors,More even though the response has not been what you might have hoped for. I encourage you to continue using the police as a resource if your daughter continues to engage in illegal activities such as stealing and substance use. It could be useful to talk with the police during a calm time to see how they might be able to support you in holding your daughter accountable. We have a downloadable worksheet you can use to guide this conversation, which you can find HERE. Another option which might be available to you is a program which is often called PINS/CHINS (person/child in need of services/supervision), or something similar. In these programs, you can petition the juvenile courts for assistance in holding your daughter accountable for her actions. For more information about what is available in your community, you can contact your local court clerk. I recognize how challenging this situation must be for you right now, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Nephewtroubles
    I have my sister in law and her 12 year old living with us currently. He has some behaviors like cursing and hitting people, an calling names that are not allowed in my home. I have addressed my concerns with her and reviewed my household rules with him and myMore 6 children just so everyone on the same page. He still refuses to follow rules an doesnt listen to his mom. Im at the point for my sanity and everyones safety im ready to tell her to leave i hate to do this they have no where esle to go. Any suggestions?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Nephewtroubles I hear you.  It can be quite difficult when you have family living with you, and the rules of your house are being broken.  In the end, the decision of whether to tell your sister-in-law and nephew to leave is going to be up to your best judgment.   SometimesMore it can be useful to use a neutral third-party to help you look at your options, and develop a plan for addressing this particular issue. The 211 National Helpline is a referral service available 24 hours a day, nationwide. They can give you information on the types of support services available in your area such as counselors, housing services as well as various other resources. You can reach the Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto http://www.211.org. We wish you the best going forward. Take care.
  • mgtz406
    My kids dont stop fighting! And they are only boy 12 and girl 10! Please help
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      It can be really

      challenging when your kids are constantly fighting, and I’m glad that you are

      here reaching out for support.  Sibling fighting is pretty common, and

      occurs in most families where there is more than one child.  We have many

      articles addressing this topic available here on our site.  Some you might

      find helpful to start reading are https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/siblings-at-war-in-your-home-declare-a-ceasefire-now/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/6-ways-to-stop-sibling-bickering-and-rivalry/.  Please let us know if you

      have additional questions; take care.

  • concerned mom 211
    Hi I am a first time reader. I am at a loss my 13 yr old son is posting inappropriate comments that are disrespectful and demeaning on instagram to girls from school the girls aren't saying anything back except stop being a douche. I dealt with this last year atMore his school a pretty serious issue and I thought after takimg away his phone tablet and iPod for months that he had matured and learned his lesson well went into his phone today and found more of what I dealt with last year. Ya I can take his electronics away but it us not helping the problem I have told him the seriousness of saying disrespectful and sexual things to girls and especially on the internet and he obviously either doesn't care or just won't change what can I do I am so at a loss!!
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      concerned mom 211 

      I hear from many

      parents who are struggling with their teen’s inappropriate use of technology

      and social media, so you are not alone.  You make a great point that

      simply taking away your son’s devices does not resolve this issue, or help him

      to follow your rules.  This is because consequences alone do not tend to

      change behavior if the child is not also learning what to do differently next

      time.  Sara Bean discusses this more thoroughly in her article series, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-consequences-arent-enough-part-1-how-to-coach-your-child-to-better-behavior/

      and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-consequences-arent-enough-part-2-making-child-behavior-changes-that-last/. 

      We are glad that you are here, and please let us know if you have any

      additional questions.  Take care.

  • courtellis
    This starts at a very young age, when children are at their most impressionable ages. If you let those years go by thinking moments of what do not appear to be rudeness slide by you run the risk of paying the piper when they get older.  Here is a statementMore from a mom to her 12 year old daughter ( who was failing reading class and reading on a third grade level): ("You think her gyrating her little hips like that is cute, you better knock that down right now and get her little head in them books, let me have her for six months!"  Six months later the then 12 who turned 13 in grandma's care was reading on a college level.  Mom explained to daughter that she needed to take a deeper interest in her child and that they could do it together.  Now we know that isn't always the case but it does happen. Your child is being rude and you are let it slide some time ago, now you want respect.  You have to start when they are young!
  • Beamor

    Hi there,

    I have been divorced now for five years.

    Our son was 11 and now he's sixteen and a half years old.

    In April my ex husband wanted 100% custody, we agreed in mediation to keep it at 50/50 and that our son was old enough to go back and forth, to each other's home.

    He is now driving, has a busy schedule with football and now has a girlfriend.

    I was recently on disability due to surgery needed, when I went back to work, I was let go because they said I missed to much, so now I am on unemployment, I am 41, although I have a cosmetology license, I stayed home for our 12 years of marriage. So it's been extremely difficult for me to get a job.

    I live with a roommate, we rent a four bedroom house, She has two rooms, I have two.

    So my son has his own room.

    Dad rents a million dollar home, and does well.

    He remarried 3 months after our divorce two a gal that is 12 years younger than both of us.

    This is his third marriage, he has a 27 year old with his first wife.

    The current wife is 29, two years older than his first born.

    His first born is openly gay and is a cheer coach.

    Exes new wife acts like a teenager and dies cartwheels with his first born and her best friend is 14. So our son thinks she's the coolest stepmom because she acts like a teen with them.

    Not too mention she buys him everything.

    So lately our son has only been at their house because they eat out three to five meals a day, they do theme parks, shopping etc etc every weekend.

    Last month I was served by his new wife, (who is a paralegal) paperwork that ex is requesting I pay child support.

    Stating he cannot afford to feed him.

    Four days after I was served he went to Paris for 8 days and just today they all left to stay at Mandalay bay in Vegas for four days.

    I don't blame my son, what teenagers says no to all of that?!!!

    But now, he has started raising his voice at me, just Friday on my birthday he yelled at me right after I took him to have In n Out burgers.

    I am so confused and concerned for our son since I believe he is thinking everything dad is doing is right.

    I'm at a point where I do not know what to do and feel like I should just let him go.

    Please help with any advice you can give ???

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      I’m sorry to hear

      about the situation you are currently facing with your ex-husband, his new

      wife, and your son.  Many parents find it difficult when they are in a

      very different financial situation than an ex-spouse; you are not alone. 

      The decision about whether to allow your son to live full-time with his dad is

      up to you, and I encourage you to consult with a lawyer about your options

      surrounding custody and child support (for help finding legal assistance in

      your community, try contacting the http://www.211.org/

      at 1-800-273-6222).  In the meantime, I encourage you to hold your son accountable

      for his behavior toward you, regardless of how his dad might be influencing

      him.  In the end, you are the one in charge when he is with you. 

      Debbie Pincus outlines some strategies you can use in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parenting-after-divorce-9-ways-to-parent-on-your-own-terms/.  Take care.

  • Julie
    My 14 year old grandaughter has come to live with us. She had a fall out with stepfather. We lost our daughter 7 years ago and our grandaughter was with her when she died. She has started to want to go out at night at the weekend and atMore least one night during the week. However we can't get her to come home when we say. She texts and says she staying out and will text when she is ready. It always ends up in a row because she is really disrespectful. If I take her phone off her she would kick off and probably self harm if she is punished. I feel she needs counselling but she doesn't think so. I don't know what to do. Never had anything like this from my own children. Please can you help?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      This sounds like a challenging situation. Disrespect in

      response to being held accountable is unfortunately quite common with teens. As

      much as possible, try not to personalize the behavior. Instead, set a clear

      limit around it by disconnecting and walking away when your granddaughter

      becomes verbally abusive. You can say to her something like “It’s not OK to

      talk to me that way. I don’t like it” and then disengage from the conversation.

      You can go into the other room to help yourself remain calm if need be. Carole

      Banks offers more tips for responding to verbal disrespect in her article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/disrespectful-child-behavior-dont-take-it-personally/. Another article you may find

      helpful for your situation is https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/establishing-curfews-how-to-set-and-stick-with-them/. We appreciate you writing in. Be

      sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.

  • SumathiKumar
    My son 19yrs is doing engineering at his interest. But we find he's not able to score marks but doing bad in subjects .He'said a good boy ..no bad habits...but doesn't concentrate.He doesn't seem to understand that he may not get job if he has backs..We won't be able toMore support him after 3 yrs as we are senior citizens. He feels we don't understand as corrections haven'the been done well. Pls suggest how to go about him. Pls reply URGENTLY.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      Many parents of adult children have shared similar feelings

      of distress over their child’s poor academic performance. From what you have

      written, it sounds like you have talked with your son about

      the choices he has been making and it hasn’t seemed to have an impact.

      Unfortunately, there really may not be much more you can do other than limit the

      amount of support you choose to give him. As Debbie Pincus explains in her

      article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/adult-children-living-at-home-how-to-manage-without-going-crazy/, a parent’s

      role changes when their child becomes an adult, from that of a manager to more

      of a consultant. What a parent is responsible for also changes, meaning

      anything you provide for him is a choice you make. If he’s not meeting certain

      grade expectations, it’s OK to start limiting the financial support you give

      him. Hopefully, this will help to motivate your son to start taking his studies

      more seriously. Best of luck to you and your family moving forward. Take care.

  • Elizabeth
    Great suggestions! The only problem is both of my teens seem to stay quiet after pointing out the wrong and I have a feeling that's not healthy for them or our relationship. It's almost like getting a silent treatment, or they're using the quiet time to vent to friends onlineMore and/or cook up new strategy. I'm afraid to push too much as they will push back harder.
  • lindsay

    I agree that rules are rules and intolerable words and language need to have boundaries.

    I see the non-empathy here -" it doesn't matter to you why he does it" as problem creating.

    I see children as needing some empathy while upholding the rules in combination.

    Acknowledging the underlying issues build deeper trust and support, add more value to the child patental relationship.

    I also see issue with associating unrelated consequences to the behavior at hand. There is always a real and existing consequence to behavior without needing to punish.

    Punishing tends to beget anger, not self-reflection on the part of the punished.

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