Like most parents, I text with my teens regularly, and I feel fairly competent: I’m a good communicator, I know the lingo, and I understand the ins and outs of texting with teens.
Or so I thought.
Last week my oldest daughter, a college junior, sent me this text:
“Sometimes when you ask a ton of questions about whatever I’m doing or use excessive punctuation it really stresses me out.”
Wait, what? I scrolled back through our texts, looking for evidence, and quickly found this offending text: “How was your interview?!”
Ah. I was trying to convey a mix of excitement and shared nervousness. But to my daughter, the question mark/exclamation point combo meant one thing: stress! I checked in with my other two daughters and they strongly agreed with their sister: too much punctuation is a bad thing.
If I wasn’t aware enough to recognize that punctuation was a big deal, what else might I not know? I reached out to a few dozen students between the ages of 15-22, in different parts of the U.S., and received remarkably similar responses.
Here are the top four things I learned, and that you need to know, when texting with your high school and college-age kids:
1. Punctuation matters (a lot).
Turns out punctuation causes a lot of miscommunication and reading between the lines (often incorrectly).
Here are some guidelines:
Avoid using periods. They make your kids nervous and your meaning unclear. Here’s a sampling of comments I received on the topic:
“The use of periods makes it seem much more serious and makes us think we did something wrong.”
“A lot of periods instead of exclamation marks make me feel like my mom is mad at me or something.”
“It’s easy to read too much into even a simple question when it ends with a period.”
Avoid using ellipsis. Similar to periods, but maybe worse: an ellipsis leaves too much for your teen to try to figure out. What are you leaving unsaid? As one teen said to me, “Don’t end a sentence in ‘…’ – that is STRESSFUL!” Avoid punctuation combinations. Case in point, my earlier example of “How was your interview?!” It’s too much and, again…stressful.
Exclamation points are fine. This is the preferred form of punctuation and usually comes across as positive (Unless you’re saying, for example, “Call home immediately!”).
Safest bet: no punctuation at all (if you can bear it). This is painful for me, a stickler for grammar and spelling, to suggest. But if you look at your kids’ texts, you’ll see that most of them use no punctuation at all, so if you want to speak their language, consider doing the same.
2. Know your emojis, and use them sparingly – and appropriately.
Turns out parents aren’t great with emojis.
Top complaint: using too many emojis
“Go a little lighter on the emojis.”
“Stay low key with emojis. You only need a few.”
Using emojis without knowing what they mean (some emojis have sexual connotations, so you DEFINITELY don’t want to use those).
Low key. Right, got it.
3. Bitmoji is good!
While overusing emojis is bad, it turns out that our kids think it’s good, and funny, when we use Bitmoji. Don’t know what Bitmoji is? It’s an app that lets you create a cartoon character/avatar that looks like you, and you can add it in text messages. (My friends and I love our Bitmojis and find them hilarious.)
Here are a few comments from teens on the topic:
“Bitmojis can be very funny if used at the right times.”
“I find it super funny that my parents will respond with their Bitmojis only, or that my mom and I can have a full conversation with Bitmoji.”
“My mom getting a Bitmoji would be GREAT.”
4. Timing is everything.
Be quick. Teens appreciate it when you reply to them right away and get impatient when you don’t (Sound familiar?). Give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t get mad if they don’t reply to you immediately (“If I don’t reply right away, don’t assume I’m ignoring you. Sometimes I’m driving or with friends and just not looking at my phone. Those are good things!”).
What day is it? Texting your college kids on the weekend may lower your chance of a quick response. One college freshman admitted, “When my parents text me I always read it but 9 out of 10 times I wait and usually forget to respond for a couple days. Especially if I get a text Thursday through Saturday.”
And, finally, remember that kids don’t love it when we text them for no reason, so make sure your texts have a purpose.
After an initial career as an ad agency copywriter, followed by 15 years as a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer, Nancy Brandt jumped into the corporate world and now manages a communications team for 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. She’s the mom of three daughters – two in college and one in high school – and is one of three daughters herself. Her older sister says she’s a “classic middle child.” She is a yoga enthusiast, is obsessed with podcasts and has a weakness for Swedish Fish. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or her personal favorite, Instagram.