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How Young People perceive and experience language when speaking to adults


Last year I was asked by the Association for Young People’s Health (AYPH) to share my thoughts about language and the impact it can have on young people, when professionals are not mindful of how they speak to them. Recently, I found my notes from this talk and decided to edit them into a short blog.


As children grow into adolescence, they are constantly finding ways to define their identities as separate from their child selves and their parents / caregivers. This is part of creating independence for the first time. It is a period of discovery that often involves; risk-taking, negotiating new social situations, finding new forms of personal expression as well as being a period of significant brain development only exceeded in infancy. One of the most noticeable ways they do this is by developing a ‘private language.’ Having a private language marks them as different from their caregivers and previous generations. It is creating an independent and distinct world for them to experiment with their identity in a safe social space with friends. We see this in how young people communicate with each other as well as cultural representations of youth culture, such as in music or social media.


Hearing this private language has an interesting effect on adults. It can feel threatening, intimidating, alienating. This can be why some adults stay well clear of young people and some adults may try to imitate the language (never a good idea).


(young people and quad bikes, a South London institution)


However, adults rarely consider the effects of their language on young people. An obvious example is professionals use jargon or acronyms. Words, cultural points of reference or industry specific terms can alienate young people and prevent them access to a lot in society, from healthcare to education.


Less obviously, adults also rarely consider the status and power that they have over young people. This status and power can go unnoticed and unfelt by adults. Regardless of this, young people are often acutely aware of the difference in status. Having status and power over a young person, real or perceived, changes how they view adults and receive their language. Language adults use can be the same as those used by a young person, but because of status and power, they take on a different meaning. They can feel like a judgement or chastising or othering. In addition, it is not just status that affects young people but environment too.


Environment, such as GP practice, hospitals, in schools, or counselling rooms, and the potential psychological effects of young people having to navigate these spaces, often can be emotionally overwhelming or very charged. Young people have to navigate alienating language, power dynamics and uneasy environments. All things professionals take for granted.


In order for adults to communicate with young people, they need to be mindful of the intersection between language, their status and the environment and circumstances, to make that communication meaningful and useful for the young person.



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