Any parent of a teenager has heard it. And when it comes there's this prickly feeling that grows at the back of the neck and rides to the top of the head, and then we find ourselves saying, “Don't you dare take that tone with me!” And then our teen, exasperated, full of drama about how we don't understand them, storms away.
I have talked with many teens who earnestly tell me they don’t hear their tone. How could this be when I am absolutely convinced that I hear words dripping with distain, contempt, and disrespect? Because I was convinced of the confusion and frustration I saw in the faces of teens saying, “I don't know what tone you're talking about.” I had to try and understand how parents and teens could see things so differently.
Do you remember when you first recognize a word your child spoke? We thought they were geniuses! But the truth be told the word they spoke was not anything anyone else would recognize. I remember my daughter calling her favorite blanket, “Yayee”. How many times did we repeat the word “blanket”--a million times--until they were finally able to say the word that was recognizable to everyone else, “blanket”.
Well I think that's what's happening with teens too. They've heard a lot of different tones, from people around them and in the media. They have a big vocabulary (though they don't know what all the words really mean—more on that later) and when they're feeling a strong emotion, anger, fear, sadness or frustration, just like a toddler they try to express themselves and they just can't get it right. Part of the problem for us is that children have become “adultified” and we are looking at them like a little adult and we forget that they are developmentally really a big kid.
More about vocabulary. Don’t assume kids understand all the words they use—they don’t. Let me tell you about couple of conversations I've had recently. The first was with a 12 year old I will call Sara. I was talking about the lyrics of a song with Sara and I saw the word lust and told her I didn’t like that word. Sara looked confused and wondered what was wrong with it. So I asked, “What do you think that word means?” She said to me, “Well it's less than love, like a crush.” Ok? So I asked her to read the definition. And after reading the definition she responded, “I like my definition better. I really couldn’t care less about what it really means it’s just another word in the song.” Here I was thinking that Sara understood the definitions of the words that she was singing.
Later I was sharing this story with an 18-year-old I will call Morgan. And I was using these words of love and lust assuming fully that she understood what they meant. Somewhere in the conversation I asked her the meaning of lust. Surprisingly Morgan gave me the same definition as Sara. Wow, now I was convinced. We are not speaking the same language.
Come to find out this is supported by neurobiological research. Researchers showed adults and teenagers faces with different emotional expressions. The adults had 100% accuracy in naming the emotion exhibited on the face. The teenagers had about 50% accuracy. More interestingly was that in examining what parts of the brain were activated when trying to read the facial expressions adults used a part of the brain that won't be developed in teens until their 20’s. (The Teenage Brain.)
So the next time we are talking to our tweens/teens, and that feeling starts creeping up the back of our neck to the top of our head, we need to remember--just like saying the word blanket a million times to our toddler, our teens need us to help them--a million times--to recognize their emotions and how to put the right tone with it.
And when we get that feeling of being disrespected, and think to ourselves, “There is no way that I will let my child speak so disrespectfully to me.” we need to remember that we are not teaching them to talk to us disrespectfully because they don't know entirely how to accurately express disrespect yet.