I have long marveled at the carelessness of the human tongue.
Decades after phrases were spoken to me, I still recall the pain of how a certain comment stung deeply—or the rage that words made me feel.
It’s no accident that Scripture has a lot to say about the damage our tongue can do.
James 3:8 tells us, “But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Let’s be honest—you only have to go so far as the first 8-year-old girl you see on the street to find out just how keenly words can skewer a person.
I recently interviewed a classroom full of teenagers and asked them to give me an unfiltered account of what words get under their skin the most.
Wow, the topic alone got their blood boiling.
According to my teenage students, here are some of the phrases that kids can’t stand hearing from the adults in their lives—whether it be their parents, teachers, pastors or youth leaders.
“You’re too young to understand.”
This is a phrase that bugs teenagers to no end—and unfortunately, it’s one they claim to hear on a weekly basis from teachers, parents and other adults who deal with them daily.
As one student told me, “When adults tell me that I’m too young to listen to something or watch it, it feels like I’m not given any trust at all.”
My other students echoed that frustration, and poured out their frustration about how this particular phrase makes them feel. It maddens them, from what they told me.
As another student confessed, “We tend to hide things from our parents, and they have no idea what we’ve already been exposed to.”
“You didn’t really try.”
My students immediately cited this as one of the most frustrating phrases adults say to them—and confessed that it’s something that totally breaks their spirits, especially when they did truly put effort into something.
“Parents are always on your back, no matter what. Their expectations are very high,” explained one student.
They feel the pressure of expectation from nearly every adult in their lives, and the weight of their futures lies heavily on their shoulders at all times—most young teens are already fretting about college, first jobs, marriage and having their own house someday. This phrase just adds one more worry, kids claim.
“There will be consequences.”
Hailed by my students as the “most unspecific threat ever,” it’s nevertheless a phrase that teenagers hate to hear.
As one of my students told me, “When adults say, ‘there will be consequences,’ it’s frustrating. No one likes consequences, and it makes me feel like I’m not working as hard as I should be—and sometimes I really am already!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
When I asked if these kids feel comfortable talking to their parents about the seedy side of the world they’ve already experienced, the answer was a vehement “no way!”
“If you tell your parents, you feel even worse because now they know what kind of kid you are,” confided one teenager. “They’re clueless because they don’t ask us what’s really going on, they don’t know what we’re going through at all, and they grew up in a completely different time.”
Other students agreed. “The adults in our lives think that we’re really fragile—that we haven’t been exposed to anything. The reality is that we’ve already seen it online or on television. Some things are really hard to keep to yourself, but you’re scared your parents will find out what you’re really up to.”
“Where did I go wrong with you?”
Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most hurtful things any adult can say to a minor. The vitriolic sting of this particular comment packs a doozy of an emotional punch.
“When your parents are mad at you and say something like, ‘I thought I raised you better’ or “Where did I go wrong?’, it really hurts,” one student confessed.
Often, parents are the guilty parties of flinging this phrase out to their teenagers. Saying things like, “I thought I raised you better,” hits kids hard with feelings of failure and worthlessness.
“This always happens.”
My students explained to me that they hear this phrase a lot, and it’s always frustrating.
According to what one student told me, “Hearing this makes me feel like it’s all my fault. It discounts me when I try to be good.”
Other kids vehemently agreed that it’s a really upsetting saying that puts them on edge. “If you accidentally do something, adults will act like it happens again and again and again,” one student told me.
“I’m too busy right now.”
This is a phrase that my students claim they hear from nearly every adult in their lives on an almost daily basis—and most of them admitted that it’s something they commonly hear from siblings young and old, too.
Sometimes it takes the form of “go away” or “leave me alone” or “not now, I’m doing something else.” Other times, it’s simply stony silence or a dismissive look.
With the popularity of cell phones and electronic tablets, I fear that our children are growing up being edged out by the demands of our increasingly fast-paced work, social media and entertainment schedules. It’s something that my students cite often as a distraction that keeps the adults in their lives from paying much attention to them.
“When adults say ‘I’m too busy for you right now’ to me, it makes me feel ignored, or like they’re trying to stall and make it to the end of the day without dealing with me at all,” one student told me. “I feel like something else is more important than me, pretty much all the time.”
In understanding these common phrases that drive our kids bonkers, we can learn more about our teenagers and root out the deeper issues within their lives. We benefit from realizing the real emotions they’re struggling with, including feeling alone and unimportant, belittled or like they’ve failed to live up to expectations.
Scripture has many wise words about using our words properly, and Proverbs 15 is a great reminder of the contrast between using our tongues for good and for evil. As Proverbs 15:4 says, “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”
As we listen to how our casual words sting our teens, we should get a gut check—along with a reminder to use our words to build up each other instead of cut each other down.