How to Learn Teenage as a Second Language
Better communication with teenagers can help them make better decisions, a new book claims.
We all know by now that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. But once your children hit those dreaded teen years–it might seem like they’re from another planet altogether! That sweet little child who once couldn’t wait to jump off the bus and give you that after-school hug? She’s morphed into a sarcastic, sullen alien who slinks straight from bus to bedroom–without ever acknowledging your existence.
So what’s a parent to do–short of locking their teens up for the next five years and throwing away the key? Psychologists Dr. Jennifer A. Powell – Lunder and Dr. Barbara R. Greenberg, co-authors of the book, Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual, worked with hundreds of teens and their families and concluded through evidence-based research that teens actually do speak their own language. The authors suggest you take the time to learn teen talk–the same way you’d go about learning Spanish or French.
“Teenage is a multifaceted language, says Powell-Lunder. Learning the language involves interpreting both what your teen is saying to you with words, as well as what their body language is telling you. Often the two do not match, which makes it difficult for parents to understand what their teens are really saying.”
For example, she says, if your teens are talking to you with arms crossed, or a hand over their mouth, or feet facing the door, those might be indications that they’re not comfortable with what they’re saying. They’re likely withholding information and/or are desperate to end the conversation.
“As with any language, however, it takes time and effort to correctly understand and translate,” she says, insisting the process is well worth it. “The quantity and quality of the communication between teens and parents affects teen decision-making. Teens who communicate well with their parents not only make smarter, healthier life decisions, as adults they actually live longer!”
Want some translations? Here are some definitions– and suggested responses from the authors — that every parent should know.
• An expression that implies that a teen may give in but is not really interested in what is being said
• An attempt to be dismissive in as few words as possible.
Suggested Parental Response: Leave this alone. Do not let your own concern that your teen may be less than thrilled create an unnecessary controversy.
2.) “And, yeah…”
• A phrase often used just as a teen is getting to the main point of a story.
• This phrase serves to deflate or minimize the importance of the main point of the story especially when a teen is unsure of how the story will be received.
Suggested Parental Response: This is an opportunity to respond in an interested and neutral manner. “I am interested in the rest of the story if you feel like telling me now or later.”
• I will reluctantly consent, but not with pleasure.
• An intentionally vague description used when teenager clearly has no interest in providing further detail.
4.) “I hate you”
• An expression used to convey anger at the moment.
• An expression meant for ‘shock value’ in an effort to secure ‘alone time.’/ A last ditch effort to get you to give in.
Suggested Parental Response: “I’m sorry you’re upset, but that isn’t going to change my answer.”
5) “Thanks” or “Thanks a lot”
• When said sarcastically, a simple expression of anger and/or disappointment.
Suggested Parental Response: “Sorry, when you’re ready to talk to me maybe we can come up with some other fun things to do.” In all cases, avoid responding sarcastically. (Of course, if they genuinely thank you for something, make sure you acknowledge the good manners as well!)
Remember, the authors say it’s critical to remain responsive, not reactive. Think cool, calm, and collected. Your teens will not only hear what you are trying to say, but you teach them the most productive way to approach all life situations. Also, avoid the trap of asking too many questions. Don’t push. If they’re holding back, let them disclose information at their own pace. When opening a dialogue, pointed questions result in more expansive responses. (e.g. Ask: “Tell me one thing you learned in school today,” instead of “How was school today?”)
“The tools and techniques we offer in the book have been shaped through trial and error in our own direct clinical work,” says Powell-Lunder. “While we put the information we gathered into book form, it was the teens who let us into their lives that we feel we must credit. Our work with them and their families compelled us to write the book.”
Of course, it may take some trial and error for parents, too. After all, it’s not always easy to put up with the eye-rolling and “whatevers”. Their advice? Remember it’s not personal, even though, at times, it may feel that way.
“Teens are, by nature, egocentric. They assume that the whole world is watching them and that everything they think and feel is unique to them. Your perception of your teen should take these factors into account,” she says. “If their responses frustrate or anger you, calmly explain why. Anger begets anger. It is not what you say to your teen but how you say it that can make all the difference.”