How to talk to teens—I mean, young adults

by Belle Allen, a high school senior

The ultimate challenge, the Mt. Everest of social conundrums: speaking to a teen. As a senior in high school, I’d say that I’ve weathered the storm, and from it I bring to you—parents, educators, innocent bystanders—the “what not to do’s” and one very important “do” for communicating with those seemingly ticking time bombs of unpredictable emotion.

Three dont's and a DODo not condescend. I’m sure this sounds like “Inter-Generational Relations 101,” but it’s definitely still rule number one. Do not talk about us “teens” as if we are a species to be studied—not that it’s all that far from the truth. We can be sensitive at times, I’m sure you remember. We might not know who we are, but we know what we’re not. The word teen can simply mean an age group to some, but the word teen can also carry a lot of baggage. A teen is both your neighbor Emily, who is in band and is waiting for an acceptance letter from Juilliard, and Regina George—a name you should Google if you are unfamiliar—or any other pimple-popping, gossiping, hormonal idiot that Hollywood has placed under the banner of “teen.” Worst yet is the word that brings up traumatic memories of junior high: tween. This word denotes a person stuck in those awkward years between childhood and being a teenager, which are terrible enough without the cute little name stamped on your forehead. Even if it’s cute, we don’t want it describing us, at least not by anyone who was eligible to vote for or against Bush Sr. for president.

Example: If you want to tell a teen to put down his or her cell phone, don’t say . . .
“I know you teenagers love your phones, but I’d appreciate it if you could put it away.”

Instead say . . .
“Please put your phone away, I’d like to talk to you.”

Do not assume. Let’s be honest, if you could read post-pubescent minds, you wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place. Assuming you understand what someone is going through can be the kiss of death. Not everyone enjoyed Twilight, not everyone loves One Direction, and out of all the teens I know, not one of them is normal. Shocking, I know, but there is no default teen. We do not all wear the same things, or listen to the same things, or even think the same things. Just because a school in Nowheretown, Ohio, has a problem with sexting does not mean that your high school neighbor is doing the same. We are people. Every adult worry can and has been felt by a teen at some point. Our lives can be just as messy as yours, messier because we have no life experience.

Example: If you are explaining your opinion to a teen, don’t say . . .
“I know that teens nowadays are experimenting with drugs, but I hope you know better.”

Instead say . . .
“A lot of people out there use drugs, but trust me, it’s not something you want. Let’s talk about why.”

No SLangDo not use slang. In order to understand when speaking to a teen, knowledge of the origins of “#YOLO,” “swag,” or even “legit” is necessary. But if you’re a professional speaking to a young person, be a professional. The weirdest thing for a teen is when an adult attempts to use slang. You might think it creates the illusion that you’re listening or you understand, but really it tells a teen that you are trying too hard or you’re forcing yourself on them. Teens are people, too, we don’t need an olive branch of “That’s so dope!” to see you come in peace. The things you can impart upon the younger generations are very important, so don’t make them seem less so by using slang, which can distract from what you are trying to say.

Example: If you are trying to convince a teen to clean his or her room, don’t say . . .
“BT-dubs, you should toats clean up your room, cause, real talk, it’s a mess.”

Instead say . . .
“I’d appreciate it if you could clean up your room.”

Fortune CookieDo be straightforward. A teenager and an adult with all the answers walk into a coffee shop. The adult has a message that could change the teen’s life, but the teenager leaves before the wise elder can finish her opening statement. The moral of the story: Teens nowadays don’t need a big lead into your fortune cookie of wisdom. We need information fast, we’d hear it while watching Netflix if we could; usually if we want to learn something, we Google it. We know that Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source, but we still use it. Why? Because the answer is usually in the first paragraph. If you’re talking about a serious topic, don’t beat around the bush. To us it seems patronizing when someone dances around the topic. It may simply be an easier way for you to say something, but to us it sounds as if you think we cannot handle the truth.

Example: If you are trying to tell a teen that he or she should be patient, don’t say . . .
“You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink.”

Instead say . . .
“I’ve found in my life that even if you’re right and they’re wrong, it helps to listen and be patient.”

Belle, 17, is a senior in high school. She has been mentored by Judy Galbraith through the Mentorship Program, which enables high school students to work with professionals in their chosen field.


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