Why don’t more teens talk about faith and feelings? Research suggests they can’t. Conclusions reached in the National Study of Youth and Religion are sharply disturbing.

How well does your teen-ager communicate? Whether it’s your child or a grandchild, do you enjoy emotion-rich conversation? Can you snuggle together in the parlor with a cup of tea and talk about faith, family, fears, and the future?

Sounds old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Who has a parlor these days and what tea is served warm in china cups? Texas tea means sweet and iced.

Beyond the setting, the very idea reads like yesteryear instead of this year. Most grandchildren text their grandparents. Letter-writing is a lost art. Some cross-generational communication happens via Zoom or Skype, but texting and Facebook are primary points of attachment.

Recent research suggests emotion-rich communication with teens is rare. Most American teens lack the vocabulary to express deep feelings or complex concepts. Cursive writing and spelling were replaced with Emoticon-speak. Young folks fluidly tap whichever simple cartoon best reflects their emotional state.

“How do you feel about losing your best friend?”

Tear-filled eyes meet yours before dropping to the screen in her hand. Her right index finger summons the emoticon table then taps on the sad face with one tear.

“Tell me about it.”

Silence.

Hospitals now evaluate pain on a scale of 1-10.

“What’s your pain level today?”

“7”

“I’ll get another dose of pain medication for you right away.”

What exactly does a “7” mean? Irritating or excruciating? I doubt everyone’s “7” is the same. How did the 1-10 scale become so popular? My theory is that people can’t put what they feel into words.

Whether physical or emotional, we’ve lost the ability to share. Which means we’ve lost the ability to communicate. To know. To understand. To empathize. To help each other.

Have we lost something important within ourselves?

Talk is Important – Even Self-Talk

I talk to myself. Out loud. It sounds nuts, I know, but sometimes I need reminders. Or a pep talk.

Everything you say to yourself registers. Affirmations and verbal habits inform your mind and affect your life. Speaking to yourself is important. Most people (I’ve been told) speak to themselves in private. I talk out loud.

Recently I was nearly deaf for a week as a complication of Meniere’s Disease. 🙁 The most surprising discovery is that I quit talking to myself. How could the habit of a lifetime change overnight?

My hearing returned and I talk to myself again. What would happen if I stopped conversing with myself? If I permanently lost my hearing? One day I may learn the answer, but for now I ponder the possibility.

Language is vital to relationship. Vital to faith.

Who would argue if mute folks feel as deeply as others? Yet, without vocabulary it’s difficult to communicate anything but emoticon concepts like,

  • Water
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Tired
  • Angry

We understand in a general sense, but without additional vocabulary we can’t express or process anything more refined. Differentiating between a minor upset and a major emotional upheaval is impossible without descriptive words.

How can we know if sad means depressed? When it means lonely or desperate?

When does angry mean irritated? Pissy? Or on the edge of explosive reaction?

When does happy express joy? Contentment? Love?

Words Don’t Mean the Same Thing to Everyone

If your son complains to his school counselor that he’s depressed because his parents “always yell at me”, what should the counselor think? That you’re abusive? Screamers? Impatient? Is psychological intervention or family counseling necessary? Is the boy at risk?

“Yelling” doesn’t always mean speaking loudly. It doesn’t always indicate aggression. To some kids, hearing what they don’t want to hear defines yelling. Even if the message is delivered in a measured tone with love. Does your son know the difference or is he unable to communicate effectively? Does the counselor know that the kids she serves lack the ability to draw accurate verbal pictures?

Does your son react to “No, you can’t go out until you finish your homework” the same as, “What were you thinking, staying out till 2 AM and coming home smelling like beer?!” Are both yelling? Both punitive? Precisely how does he feel about each situation?

Do teens even talk to themselves? How much do they feel if they’re unable to put words to their emotions?

Do animals talk to themselves? Some people believe animals don’t have feelings because they can’t express them. They don’t speak love, ergo they don’t feel love.

What would “they” say about kids without a vocabulary of emotion or faith?

I love animals. After decades as a horse trainer and literally living in the barn with them, I’ll testify that horses experience every emotion people do. They just don’t verbalize well. But if you pay attention and learn their vocabulary, they speak volumes. With eloquence.

If you’re wondering about your own teens, try this simple exercise. Pick an emotional topic, photo, or video. Experience it together then ask them to describe it.

Did they feel the expected emotion? Can they communicate it? If they can’t verbalize their feelings, how can you be certain they felt them?

The State of Faith in American Teens: “Who knows?”

A 2005 National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) asked American teens to describe their faith. Some appeared to have faith, some didn’t. The study used one-on-one interviews, yet researchers couldn’t summarize the state of faith in American teens because most have no language of faith; no vocabulary to describe what faith means in their hearts and lives.

To some it meant they “tried to be nice.” (Finger tap on appropriate emoticon.)

When teens said they believed in Jesus Christ, the researchers probed for more depth. Examples. Illustrations. The kids had no more words. What does belief mean? That they pursue holiness? That sanctification is real and progressive in their lives? That fear gradually diminishes as faith in a worthy Master increases?

Do they believe in sin?

Silence.

Researchers couldn’t tell what faith meant to teens. Which was a huge red flag. When it comes to matters of faith, American teenagers say they’re happy or sad, but have no specific words to communicate more meaningfully. (Cue the emoticon menu.)

The NSYR found that most kids equate religion with happiness. 🙂 Researchers concluded that, “The actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace,… about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”

Teenagers appear positive about religion. They worry less about failing God than God failing them.

Children Speak the Language of the Home

Little kids learn language and behavioral norms from parents and siblings. Some kids speak English and others Mandarin Chinese because they speak the language of their homes. When families speak the language of faith on a daily bases the result is bilingual kids. Children can speak their native tongue and the language describing faith in word and action.

Languages and habits of faith aren’t strictly verbal. Kids mimic what their parents do until it becomes part of who they are. Little kids whose parents habitually pray for strangers learn to pray for strangers.

One day six-year old Charlie pipes up, “See that man over there? I think we need to pray for him.”

My parents kissed and hugged one another, but those displays didn’t include us kids. I wasn’t hugged and kissed as a child and grew up not hugging or kissing other people. When someone genuinely hugged me I froze, not knowing how to respond, but not wanting to reject them.

To hug or not to hug? It felt wrong either way.

Over the course of years I learned a new language. Now I cheerfully hug folks unless I register a vibe that they’re like I used to be. I don’t want to make someone uncomfortable when my intent is affection.

I grew up without displays of affection. That was the norm in our home. The absence of affection was expected. Secure. Understandable. Learning new languages later in life isn’t easy, as some who’ve tried to learn Spanish, French, or English as an adult discover.

Programming Children: Pets and Religion

The language of home is easy. We pick it up without thinking. Learning a new one is a chore. Without sufficient motivation, most folks quit.

There’s also a language and habit of household pets. Thankfully I grew up with dogs and hung out with four-legged critters as often as possible. I’ve always had animals in my family. It’s normal. Sharing life with animals is my native language.

People who grew up without animals often choose fur-free households. The pet/no pet debate is a significant one when engaged couples don’t share the same language. If I speak “pets required” and you speak “not in the house”, whose language wins? How do we raise the kids?

I’ve heard about parents who purposefully let their kids grow up religion-free. “They can choose whatever is meaningful for them when they grow up. I don’t want to take away their freedom.”

Hogwash.

Kids raised without faith speak the language of no faith. Adding religious practice later is like switching from English to Swahili. It’s unfamiliar. Abnormal. Not usually gonna happen.

Unless there’s sufficient motivation. There must be a compelling reason.

What bridges the gap between two people debating the pet-no pet issue? Love. Engaged couples open to learning the language of their beloved enjoy stronger marriages. They create a new shared language of love.

What moves the kid fluent in “no religion” into the presence of Christ? Love. The Holy Spirit calls. But learning is more difficult and fluency may be more difficult to achieve. Whether pets or religion, the hurdle of tearing down the old to replace it with something new is messy work.

Motivation spurs effort. Remember trying to communicate with someone who didn’t get what you said? When you can’t find the words, folks often give up trying. “Oh, well…”

Talk With Your Children

Kids are simple, honest, and possess traits adults lost along the way. The younger your kids or grandkids, the more fertile the soil for planting seeds of language.

How extensive is their vocabulary of emotion and faith? Are they comfortable and descriptive about emotions and relationships?

Do they communicate in complete thoughts or rely on emoticons?

Teaching and learning new languages doesn’t get easier. How motivated are you? The easy way out is seldom the right way out.

New Creations in Christ become “as little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven. But we aren’t to stay as little children. Our faith remains pure, simple, and deepens as we grow in maturity. New concepts take root in our heart married to the vocabulary to connect with others who speak the same language.


Research material: Almost Christian – What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean

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