When people don’t speak the same language it’s hard to understand each other. Likewise, when parents and children don’t speak the same language then they can become disconnected because of lack of understanding. Understanding creates a feeling of respect and bonding in relationships, and is a vital component to creating family unity and solving family problems.

Are parents and children suffering from a lack of understanding each other? How does vocabulary impact this? And, what can we do to bridge the vocabulary gap that could be creating unhealthy distance in family relationships?

Trends and the Vocabulary Gap

On a recent multi-generational family campout, we were all laughing about what happens to language and culture throughout the generations.

My father, who’s in his mid 70’s said that he remembered his mother trying to use the popular teen language/slang of his day. He recalled how people would say that a person who was talented, smart, successful, and motivated was a person who had “full socks.” And when a person “is a good head” that means that they are alright or a good person. These were just two of many common teen phrases used during the 1960s. As Dad made his list of old-time teen slang, my sister-in-law noticed that the majority of the slang my dad used was positive and meant to be complimentary to peers. Sadly, today’s teen slang is oftentimes more negative or meant to disparage people.

Today’s teens use words like “Karen” to mean a grumpy or rude person, “bus” or “fire” to mean awesome, “mid” to mean mediocre or not good enough, “sus” to mean suspect or suspicious, “lit” to mean amazing, “GOAT” to mean Greatest Of All Time, “fit” to mean an outfit, “Salty” to mean bitter or angry, “Gucci” to mean good or going well, “Sic/Sick” to mean next level cool, and “ship” to mean relationship, etc. Parents, who may not be teen-slang-literate, can feel out of touch with their teens because they don’t understand the teen language which gives insight into how the child is actually feeling. Maybe Grandma’s attempt to use my dad’s teen slang ‘back in the day’ was actually her way of staying in the conversation.

As much as most parents laugh off new slang words that pop up in teen culture for inside jokes and derogatory comments, many parents are struggling to bond with their children because of lack of productive communication and the bonding that comes from it.

If the only vocabulary gap that parents and children needed to navigate was a few new slang words here and there, then most parents would probably be okay and be more understanding of their children. But, many parents must also navigate a family culture vocabulary gap that can lead to family power struggles and feelings of being misunderstood or disrespected.

Problem Solving Gaps in Families

Each family has a culture complete with ways that they communicate with each other. In fact, those communications can be very distinct. Even people living right next door to each other, in a neighborhood, can have totally different family communication and problem-solving styles. While unique family cultures are a wonderful part of family life, sometimes a family can create a communication culture that is destructive and makes problems hard to solve; instead of the reverse. This type of communication usually includes a vocabulary gap.

If parents use words for parenting that the children don’t fully understand, such as emotional outbursts or personal attacks, then the parenting lessons might not ‘hit the mark’ for a change of heart or behavior in the child. In fact, many family arguments and emotional power struggles are caused by families having a vocabulary gap when it comes to solving family problems.

For instance, a parent may see a child’s mess on the table. The parent may tell the child, “This is a huge mess. You need to take responsibility for yourself.” (This is a very vague instruction from the parent.)

The child may not feel understood because they are being responsible right then by doing their homework. This stress and lack of feeling understood could cause a child to say, “Fine, I’ll get to it when I can, but I’m busy right now.”

When the child doesn’t “get to” cleaning the mess, the parent may get frustrated and decide to retaliate against the child’s disobedience or lack of respect by dumping all the mess on the floor of the child’s room. This parent attitude-based behavior is a power struggle which started because the parent felt disrespected.

Dumping the mess on the floor will feel manipulative and disrespectful to the child, so the child will ignore the mess or dump it somewhere else in order to power struggle with the parent by not cleaning it up because the method of correction was a method of war and retaliation, instead of a method designed to instruct.

A parent recently told me that her teenage daughter had changed when they both learned the same self-government skills used for family problem solving. These words were based on skills like, disagreeing appropriately and accepting ‘no’ answers etc. The mother said that her daughter used to nag again and again if she didn’t originally get a ‘yes’ answer from her mother. And, then after nagging for a time, the mother would be worn down and the child would end up getting her way. This bad communication habit cycle needed breaking. So, the mother taught her daughter that one of the steps to accepting a ‘no’ answer was to drop the subject about the issue once the ‘no’ answer was given. Learning how to drop the subject stopped so much power struggling! The family is now free to communicate about other things besides misbehavior and nagging.

2 Ways to Bridge The Family Vocabulary Gap

Now this mother and daughter understand the same skills and use the same words to talk about their communications, behaviors, and problems that need solving, and they are so much happier. Luckily, what this mother did to bridge the vocabulary gap with her daughter is something that anyone can do.

One of the highest levels of communication is to talk about what you are going to talk about before you actually talk about it. When parents communicate at this high of a level it decreases anxiety, increases family buy in, and prepares everyone for future success in family problem solving. So, to bridge the family vocabulary gap, start by teaching the family what skills they need to know. Use the same words as you talk about the steps to the skills so that a united vocabulary will occur. Children and adults should all know the parent skills, including the exact vocabulary words that the parent will use during corrections, as well as the skills the child needs too.

For instance, in our family we all completely understand the steps to this child skill.

Skill: Following Instructions

1. Look at the person or situation.

2. Keep a calm face, voice, and body.

3. Say “okay,” or disagree appropriately.

4. Do the task immediately.

5. Check back.

This is a skill we target-teach to the children, but it’s really just an adult life skill. Everyone is more successful in their pursuits when they can follow instructions from others and themselves.

When parents give correction or teach their children, they reach the child’s heart best if they bring the child back to principles of truth like honesty, self-government, love, understanding, patience, forgiveness, etc. In order to open conversations with a child about these issues in the moment, foundational moral training should be done ahead of time in good, proactive, open communication. This means that creating a habit of talking about morals and principles in deep ways with the children is an important part of culture. If a parent teaches their child about honesty, then when the parent is correcting the child for not communicating honestly the child’s heart can be touched.

A heart is changed by truth and by connection to a person who loves and understands them. Parents can best help their families to not have vocabulary gaps at home if they do the proper moral training, so that youth and parents have the same foundations, and teach the children the words/skills that will be used to solve family problems. When parents do this, anxiety in the home will decrease while family identity, bonding, and problem-solving skills will increase.

Go ahead, shock the children. Tell them that you like their new “fit,” or that they are “bus.” Let them giggle at your awkward teen slang. But, don’t let the unifying vocabulary stop there. Bridge the vocabulary gap by being more deliberate in your family communications and moral conversations.

The Teaching Self-Government Parenting System gives you the words you need to unify the problem-solving vocabulary at your house. Click here to start learning self-government.