Teenage girl and mom talkingWe all have heard men are from Mars and women are from Venus. But once your children hit their teens, it might seem they're from another planet altogether!

So what's a parent to do? Psychologists Dr. Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder and Dr. Barbara R. Greenberg, co-authors of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual, worked with hundreds of teens and their families and concluded through their evidence-based research that teens actually do speak their own language. They suggest you learn teen talk the same way you'd learn Spanish or French.

"Teenage is a multifaceted language,” says Powell-Lunder. “Learning it involves interpreting both what your teen is saying to you with words, as well as what his body language is telling you. Often the two don’t match, which makes it difficult for parents to understand what their teens are really saying."

For example, she says, if your teens talk to you with arms crossed, or a hand over their mouth, or feet facing the door, it might be indicate 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 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!"

Found in Translation

Here are some examples of teenspeak and how you should respond.

1. "Whatever"

  • Implies a teen may give in but isn’t really interested in what’s being said.
  • An attempt to be dismissive in as few words as possible.

Suggested response: Leave this alone. Don’t let your concern that your teen may be less than thrilled create an unnecessary controversy.

2. "And, yeah…"

  • Often used as a teen is getting to the main point of a story.
  • Serves to deflate or minimize the importance of the point of the story, especially when a teen is unsure of how the story will be received.

Suggested response: Respond in an interested, neutral manner. "I am interested in the rest of the story if you feel like telling me now or later."

3. "Fine"

  • “I will reluctantly consent, but not with pleasure.”
  • An intentionally vague description when a teenager clearly has no interest in providing further detail.

Suggested response: None needed. You’ve made your wishes known.

4. "I hate you"

  • Used to convey anger at the moment.
  • Meant for shock value in an effort to secure alone time, or a last-ditch effort to get you to give in.

Suggested 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 response: "Sorry, when you're ready to talk to me maybe we can find other fun things to do." In all cases, avoid responding sarcastically. (Of course, if they genuinely thank you for something, acknowledge the good manners, too!) 

More Tips

  • Remain responsive, not reactive. Think cool, calm, and collected. Your teens will not only hear what you’re trying to say, but you’ll teach them the most productive way to approach all life situations.
  • Avoid asking too many questions. Don't push. If they hold 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," not, "How was school today?")
  • It may take trial and error. After all, it's not always easy to put up with the eye rolling and "whatevers." Just remember it's not personal, although at times it may feel that way.

"Teens are, by nature, egocentric. They assume the whole world is watching them and everything they think and feel is unique to them. Your perception of your teen should take these factors into account," Powell-Lunder says. "If their responses frustrate or anger you, calmly explain why. Anger begets anger. It’s not what you say to your teen but how you say it that can make all the difference."

The authors have an interactive website (Talking Teenage) for parents and teens to listen, learn, and discuss hot topics and daily dilemmas.

About the book: Teenage As a Second Language (TSL): A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual; Adams Media.

How are you at decoding your teen's language?