Can’t Understand Your Teen? You’re Not Alone.

If you're trying to connect with your teen, ask them about their language
By Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
August 21, 2021 Updated: August 22, 2021

“Mo-om,” my child cocks her head to one side to look at me. “Why are you being so emo?”

The words string together so quickly they’re hard to follow: “Whyyabeingsoemo?” To be honest, I have no idea what my daughter’s accusing me of.

My husband and I have four children. The oldest is 22 and our youngest is 11. We’ve been living with a teenager (or two or three) nonstop for the past nine years. But that doesn’t mean we understand them.

If you can’t understand most of what your teens are saying, how they’re acting, or what they’re feeling, you’re not alone.

Teenagers are fascinating, Seussian creatures. Their limbs are too big: oversized feet, hands that need new gloves before the winter’s even halfway over, elbows that swing in a thousand directions. And their feelings are also big and awkward. They’re pushing you away and pulling you back at the same time; so capable and yet often so helpless. They’re kind, responsible, and obliging with other adults—but often the exact opposite with you.

Spoken Language Is Half Someone Else’s

What any given person does with any given word is a question that has long interested philosophers and linguists.

“Language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other,” the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, writes in an essay first published in Moscow in 1975. “The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention.”

In Bakhtin’s assessment, in order for words to exist and have meaning, they can’t just be spoken, they also have to be heard and understood. So that begs the question: If our teenagers speak in a way that we can’t understand—which mine do all the time—are we even communicating?

Emo = Emotional

It turns out my daughter (who’s not technically a teenager for another year and a half but who has nonetheless adopted much of the slang and attitude of her 17-year-old brother) was asking me why I was being so emotional.

“Emo,” is short for “emotional.” It can describe a one-time feeling as well as a subculture. Young people who usually wear black clothing, dye their hair, and listen to emo music (which, from what I can gather, is punk rock with a melancholy edge) are “emo.”

Open Communication Matters

Open communication with teenagers is an essential part of what researchers from the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware describe as “sensitively attuned parenting,” in a 2017 study published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. This kind of parenting, these clinical psychologists argue, is the most optimal way to ensure a young person’s safety and well-being during the teen years.

(The other two broad categories of sensitively attuned parenting, according to the Delaware study, are positive interactions with teens and monitoring and supervising their behavior.)

A few years ago, I interviewed Ray Lozano, a motivational speaker and expert in drug and alcohol prevention. Lozano tours the country giving speeches to middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, law enforcement officers, and community groups about how to best support and enjoy the teen years. Lozano told me when we spoke that the mistake most parents make is wanting our teens to be interested in our world. What we get excited about, teens inevitably believe is passé, boring, or old-school. At the same time, Lozano said, teens have their own ever-changing, ever-surprising culture, their own interests, ideas, and activities. So, Lozano told me, parents or grandparents can be closer to teens and young adults by being open and interested in their culture, instead of trying to impose our culture on them.

In other words, in the spirit of both open communication and positive interactions (aka “sensitively attuned parenting”), we adults of a certain age need to put more effort into understanding our teens’ world to bridge the parent-teen divide. That can include learning their language and appreciating their interests.

If you’re a tired parent of a teen, especially if you have younger children at home, you’re likely shrugging your shoulders right now. It’s hard enough to get dinner on the table, keep the kids off screens for five minutes, and get them to do their chores, let alone show an interest in the bizarre way they speak. But try it. Asking a teenager to teach you some of their slang is actually more fun and eye-opening than you might expect.

One characteristic of teen slang is that the same word can mean one thing and its opposite. If you are sitting with more than one teen at the table, they will likely disagree on the meaning of the word and a lively and heated debate will ensue.

Tuning In to Teen Lingo

I decide to take my own advice and ask the teen who fills my water glass when I’m having lunch with a friend what his favorite slang word is.

Ross Winters, age 19, is thoughtful for a moment and then his eyes light up. He tells me the word he likes the most is “lit.” A student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Winters says when he can’t make his shift and finds someone to cover for him, he says, “Lit.” or “Great! Lit!” He likes it because it’s a positive and versatile word, Winters says.

Winters lingers to talk to us about slang expressions popular among teens for so long I worry he’ll get in trouble with his boss.

Ask the teen in your life what all the words on the list above mean. Maybe you won’t understand a lot of what they answer, but you will have an interesting conversation. Guaranteed.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a science journalist based in Oregon and the author of “Your Baby, Your Way.” Learn more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net

11 Slang Words Teens Seem to Love

Your teen may scoff at this list. The definitions may strike them as wrong. But here are 13 words teens like to toss around.

Brah—short for brother or bro. Example: “Check this out, brah.”

My 17-year-old son uses the word indiscriminately like a verbal exclamation point. “Brah,” he’ll say in response to my “Good morning!” (uttered at 1 p.m. to him because he’s just woken up.)

Cap—a lie. “You’re capping” means you’re lying or stretching the truth. Example: “That’s just cap,” in response to a friend who says something you disagree with or believe to be wrong.

Cringe—something embarrassing or cringeworthy. Example: “That’s so cringe.” Uttered many times by my 17-year-old when we were watching home videos from when he was 14.

Fire—something really cool. Perhaps an abbreviation of “You’re on fire”? Example: “Your new shoes are fire.”

Lit—great, fun, cool. Example: “The party’s lit.”

Low key—not urgent, no big deal. Example: “I low key failed that assignment. But that class isn’t for my major.”

On fleek—looking good, nicely groomed. Originally used to refer to eyebrows, now used for anything stylish. Example: “My sister’s new haircut is on fleek.”

Pull up—come by, come over. Example: “We’re having a party tonight. Pull up.”

Salty—grumpy, bitter. Example: “Why’re you acting so salty? Did I do something wrong?”

Sick—awesome. Example: One friend says to another: “Our family just got a puppy.” The other friend, impressed, replies: “Sick.”

Slaps—excellent, good, impressive. Example: “The recipe I found for lemon bars slaps.”

Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net