Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lost in Translation: Addressing Adolescent Slang in the Therapy Setting

One of the populations I work with is teenagers. I really enjoy this because aiding the development of our youth has a direct impact on the future of mankind. People in this age group are struggling for self-identity. In that quest to find themselves there is a creation of language unique from adults. This has, of course, been going on for many generations. The slang evolves uniformly over the years and is fed by current phenomena and popular culture. It evolves very quickly so that a younger sibling's slang might be completely different than his older sibling of 5 years. Speaking their own language not only helps them define themselves as separate from us adults put also serves as an encryption so that authority figures can not easily eavesdrop on their conversations and glean content. Part of being an effective therapist is breaking down people's defenses and the slang mechanism is often used to obfuscate true meaning and stall the therapy process. Breaking through this barrier is a "listening skill," that all therapist working with adolescents and children should have.

In forming an alliance with teens, I don't think that "speaking their language," is very effective in gaining trust. It forces you to behave in an unnatural and deliberate way that usually comes off as a bit phony. It is often initiated after an adult hears a slang term that he or she may or may not fully understand. So trying to seek clarity by using nomenclature that the clinician is not adept at might just further the misunderstanding, not gain clarity. Often the adolescent client is using the slang in lieu of actually identifying their meaning and feelings themselves. The slang is adjective filler because they don't have the right word in their vocabulary. So with some, just asking "what do you mean by.....," will get a more concise response. Or simply asking them to restate what they said might glean a more easily interpreted version the next time around. These probing and restating techniques are far more sincere and effective than trying to enter their precarious world of informal language.

While it may not be helpful to personally verbalize teen language, it is certainly effective to be versed in it and operationalize it. I often surprise my young clients by my understanding of some hip, new reference they made. Just keeping up with pop culture is helpful in this area. Slang is generated by observations made by teens through media and entertainment, so occasionally watching a movie about a nerd coming of age or sitting through a speed metal song will help me become more aware of youth's language and mindset.

Another aspect of slang is that by nature it must be fluid and changeable. This helps reinforce its function as cryptic, rebellious and unique. The use of the word "like," has this chameleon like quality. I think we can thank the SC valley ladies of the 80's for its popular inception, although it has been around longer than that. Depending on tone and emphasis, "like" can have many meanings. Initially, it was used as a method to stall the listener, to buy time till the right word came along. Also, it is used as filler, if the correct word never does come along. If it is expressed as slightly pressured and loud, the person is cuing you that something really profound is about to be disclosed. If "like' is stated rapidly or almost mumbled as the speaker is relating a past conversation, the listener may be warning you that he is paraphrasing the words that were said, often to make it appear that the speaker was the fairest, most cordial and accommodating or the real victim during this interchange. The speaker is signaling you that the other party said something "like" what he or she is repeating, but is also cuing you that the content is being slanted or manipulated to further his or her standing as it relates to the outcome of the conversation. This type of usage is very subtle and at the same time potentially confusing and nebulous in its meaning. So a simple 4 letter word becomes tremendously variable depending on the way it is expressed contextually.

So as a therapist, I have to try to untangle these nuanced slang references to have full understanding of where the adolescent client is coming from. When I started in this field and first heard the term "listening skills," I thought "what can be so hard about that?" But my brief discourse on understanding and treating teenagers illustrates the deeper levels of interaction and disseminating of information that occurs with this skill. Not just with teenagers, but with any unique ethnic, cultural or age cohort. Being an effective therapist and genuinely individualizing treatment is dependent on refined and practiced listening skills like these.

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