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The Language of Respect

Walking our talk with teenagers.

Key points

  • When children and teens are respected, they learn to believe in themselves and adults.
  • Respect is assimilated through language and modeling, not through the act of traditional “teaching.”
  • Separating adolescents from their behavior through forgiveness gives them a chance to "get it right," and increases respect.
Source: Maurus/123RF

What does it mean to build respect between adults and teenagers? Respect means we have high regard or admiration for another’s views and feelings. We value their abilities and inner qualities.

Sadly, many of today’s teens feel undervalued and misjudged by adults. Could our language be part of the problem?

A teenager recently wrote to me, saying, “I understand teens have issues… I am a teen. I get these things… I hate it when people generalize that teens love experimenting with drugs and sex and other risks and that we are ‘little sponges’ soaking up social norms that we must counteract. How are happy teenagers supposed to feel? Should they feel strange because they don’t take part in what other teenagers do?”

I’m always grateful to hear what teens are thinking. And this young woman made a great point. When we generalize about teenagers, we run the risk of losing their respect.

You’ll find lots of popular articles on “how to teach respect to children,” but respect is assimilated through language and modeling, not through the act of traditional “teaching.” Even young children understand when adults are not walking their talk. By adolescence, those mixed messages can cause deeper and deeper divides between teens and adults.

Respect Is a Two-Way Street

Researchers Hal Holloman and Peggy Yates have studied the topic of respect and how it gets translated through the words we use. Their research, outlined in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, focused on teachers and students, but it is also applicable to parents and families.

What they learned is not surprising. When we give respect, we get it back in return. When we respect children and teens, they learn to believe in themselves and us. They feel valued and loved. We feel valued and loved.

Respect is a two-way street where adults are the pace-setter cars.

How does language change the course of our relationships with teens and build a culture of mutual respect? Holloman and Yates discovered eleven categories of words that foster respect. They found that rephrasing words from a negative to a positive context helps develop a culture of respect. The 11 categories are listed below, with word samples for each.

11 Ways to Build a Culture of Respect in Families and Classrooms

  1. Words of Encouragement: Instead of complaining when teens feel discouraged, let them know how much you admire their ability to overcome tough challenges and recover from apathy or failure. “I know things can be difficult, but I really admire how you reach deeply into yourself to find the right answers. I want you to know I’m always here for you.”
  2. Words of Grace: Instead of blaming, always separate an adolescent from his or her behavior. Forgive them for mistakes or misjudgments. Give them a chance to get it right. “You are not the same as your mistake. I know you to be a kind, caring human being. I forgive you and I’m here to help you learn from this setback.”
  3. Words of Guidance: Don’t just hope teens will find their ways. Encourage them to ask questions and give them words of guidance.“Your questions help me know and understand you better. Please never think you have a dumb question. I want to help whenever I’m able.”
  4. Words of Respect: Rather than a narrow focus on academic successes, build a climate of respect in your classroom and family. “While I care about your grades and other external measures of success, it’s also important to have a climate of mutual respect here. I plan to work hard to see that each of our opinions, thoughts, and feelings are respected.”
  5. Words of High Expectations: Rather than being discouraged when teens don’t show their best abilities, encourage them to envision and pursue goals that fuel their passion. “I want you to achieve your potential, in whatever way you choose. What goals do you most want to achieve?”
  6. Words of Hope: Instead of helping teens get through another difficult day, help them envision a better tomorrow. “You have such a kind heart and helpful way with people. Those abilities will see you through many of life’s challenges.”
  7. Words of Love: Don’t just speak to the minds of teenagers. Speak to their hearts. Demonstrate how much you love and care for them every day. (Check out "50 Everyday Ways to Love Your Teen.")
  8. Words of Relationship: Use words that build connection through the sharing of feelings. Help teens “feel felt” by you. “I want to know and understand how you feel. Can you tell me?”
  9. Words of Understanding: Instead of making assumptions, discover a young person’s perspective through empathy. “I want to understand your perspective. Please tell me what you think and what led you to that conclusion.”
  10. Words of Unity: Shed the attitude of “it’s my way or the highway,” and foster a culture of collaboration and cooperation. “I’m your parent (or teacher), but that doesn’t mean I have all the answers. I respect your role as part of this family (or classroom).”
  11. Words of Accountability: Being respectful means holding everyone accountable. Instead of allowing disrespectful behavior, help young people stay on track. “How you just behaved was unkind and disrespectful. How could you have handled that differently?”

Walking Our Talk

While language is critical to building a culture of respect in families and classrooms, it can’t stop there. It is only when we practice these eleven categories of words with everyone in our lives that we truly learn to “walk our talk.” Children and teens know the difference.

©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see the reprint guidelines for Marilyn's articles.


Holloman, H., & Yates, P. H. (2013). Cloudy With a Chance of Sarcasm or Sunny With High Expectations Using Best Practice Language to Strengthen Positive Behavior Intervention and Support Efforts. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 15(2), 124-127.

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