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Do conversations with your teen ever just go BAD at your house?

A super-interesting finding in linguistic research is that in human communication, about 85% of the message is non-verbal. It is NOT the words (whether typed or spoken or written out) So if it’s NOT the words, what IS it? Take a timeout here and think about your recent conversations. Especially talks with your teens often are laden with non-verbal “static” like:

  • facial expressions;
  • the toss of her hair;
  • the “F” word which she knows you despise;
  • the way he spits his words out at you;
  • the unwillingness to meet your gaze;
  • a giggle + eyes darting to the side flirtatiously
  • the rapid-fire pace of words as if to imply that speaking to you is a bore and a drag.

Negative non-verbal messages may often be followed by, “Goh, Mom, I just said ….. (and then the literal words spoken).” Deep inside we know that’s not all he said…and we’re right. The words said one thing but the non-verbal message said something quite different. This “double-speak,” the verbal + non-verbal messages taken together, is one of the most subtle and nuanced aspects of social exchange. It can take years to be able to “read” and, honestly, some folks never get it.

The truth is that not being aware of these two parts of human communication can cause real problems in our kids’ lives.  

  • A professor your daughter admires invites her to take part in a very challenging research project. She is at once delighted/flattered and intimidated at being asked. Avoiding his face, she replies quietly, “Sure.” Her word says “yes” but her lack of enthusiasm, her volume, her averted eyes convey, “I’m not too interested.” Without even knowing it, she’s off to a bad start.
  • All the guys on the team are disappointed by their loss during the game. Holding it in is hard and your son mutters, not quite under his breath, “Goh, we’re like a pack of f…ing losers!” The coach overhears him and not only decides he has a bad, unsportsmanlike attitude but also passes judgement on what type of language the boy has used. It doesn’t matter to this coach that “everybody talks like that.”
  • Your daughter is out with a young man who is pressing her for more physical, sexual stuff than she is comfortable doing even though she likes him a lot and hopes to see more of him in the future. In an effort to communicate that she does not want to do what he’s suggesting but at the same time, maintain her interest in him, she says, “No, no….I’m not really that kind of girl.” She accompanies the limiting reply with a giggle, a provocative flip of her hair, a smile with her eyes moving to one side flirtatiously. The young man takes her “double-speak” into account…her words give one message but her non-verbal message is loud and clear. He proceeds.

As young teens come into middle school, they invariably get it wrong sometimes and are confused about what happened. It’s helpful to use the opportunity to speak about and guide kids in their understanding. One activity you can do is to have your kids say the following words in several different ways (e.g. like you’re scared, like you’re excited, like you’re mad, like you’re confused). Draw attention to how the words stayed the same but the “message” changed according to the non-verbal cues they used. Here are the words to practice saying:

I   am   coming   to   your   house   tonight

 As the weeks pass, together look for examples of non-verbal cues in conversations around you. If blatant examples pop up at home, you may want to highlight those as well. Keep in mind that there is just a lot of stuff kids don’t know. You can be a really helpful and valuable guide as they grow in their ability to navigate and communicate with the bigger world.

Happy talking; happy listening! And please, let me know how it goes!