What are “Code Words”?
A “Code Word” is a phrase that signals us to an underlying need, but which, if taken at face-value, will help the youth navigate a difficult situation. As a child my go-to cypher was, “My tummy hurts”. Perhaps this sounds familiar to you. Tummies tend to hurt the morning before a math test and before a dentist appointment. In fact, like clockwork, hurting tummies… or heads… or sudden fevers seemed to pop up all over the place before events.
You may have decoded my childhood secret language already. When I said, “My tummy hurts” what I meant was, “I am stressed (possibly to the point of nausea) about the up-coming situation”. The issue with speaking in code is it can teach youth that it is more effective to use coercion/manipulation rather then advocating for their needs. Working with youth to identify, and communicate their needs gives them low-risk opportunities to practice self-efficacy, boundaries, and self-agency. Additionally, if speaking in code is the only way youth can express their true needs, by addressing the surface problem they are presenting us with, we miss the underlying need they are trying to communicate, leaving youth feeling unheard (despite our best efforts to address what they are communicating). That is not to say that code words are not a helpful tool when implemented purposefully. Code words provide valuable insight into the needs of our youth and can jumpstart communication but, they can also pose a challenge to supporting our youth when they go unheard.
Bridging the Communication Gap
I often hear parents saying, “We didn’t know they were struggling!!” while, at the same time, the youth is saying “I tried to tell them!”. This gap in communication can be really really scary. So, how do we decipher what our youth is trying to say and bridge the gap between their words and their meaning? Here is what I recommend:
Identifying Code Words
In my experience, code words are often a phrase or word that gets repeated, particularly one that gets routinely repeated as a result of a reoccurring situation. For instance: If every day at dinner Lily says, “I am not hungry”, this is the cue to get curious as to what the underlying emotion or meaning is behind that repeated phrase. Lily may just not be hungry, perhaps she had a big lunch, but if the response becomes almost automatic, or is regularly said as a way to change her current situation (in this case changing eating dinner with the family to a different activity) it may be, or be becoming, a habitual way for Lily to try to deal with or express something that feels uncomfortable. It may be the only way that Lily knows how to navigate something that feels, or is connected to something that feels, wrong for her. Code words should be treated as the youth’s attempt to support themselves; they may not realize that telling a trusted adult is an opportunity to not have to try to find support for that need alone.
You may already know some of your own youth’s secret language, however, the trick is being able to decode it in the moment and to offer the specific type of support that is needed.
But, let’s be real, decoding on the fly is hard! To use my childhood code as an example, it can be hard to know if “my tummy hurts” means, “I am in over-sensory-mode”, “I am feeling socially anxious” or “I ate the tuna sandwich from last Friday that I forgot to take out of my lunchbox and my tummy is really, actually, hurting”. This is especially hard when you are busy. Perhaps your youth says their code word when you are in the middle of unloading the groceries onto the belt with one hand, trying to find your wallet with the other, and trying to remember which bag of fruit was on sale. The truth is, decoding quickly and accurately can be hard amid the craziness of parenting and all too often we entirely miss that it was a coded message, let alone the meaning behind the words. When you think you hear a code word, or after you missed a code word and realize it, try to create a moment of connection between your youth and you. Get on their eye level or make eye contact (if that is comforting to them), if possible, find some privacy or speak privately, tune out the rest of the world and ask them “what can we do to help you?” or, gently, “What are you needing?”. It may be a short-term fix, like waiting in the car while you are in the check-out, but what is important is that, in that moment, you took time to see that they were needing something they, possibly, could not express. Creating a private moment later to learn more is the next recommended step.
“What does that mean for you?”:
I often hear myself asking, “When you say “X”, what does that mean for you?” or “When you say “X”, what does that feel like in your body?”. This, I have found, is a good way to start uncovering what the youth is really saying. If nothing else, it provides an opportunity to make sure that my understanding of X is the same as the youth’s understanding of X. Sometimes it takes a little work and I say sentences like, “okay, I want to make sure that when you say “X” I am understanding you correctly. It sounds like when you say “X” what you mean is “Y” Is that correct?”, and if it is, I might say, “Would it be correct to say that “X” is almost like a code word for the feeling or meaning of “Y”?”.
Creating Safe Spaces:
I find code words get used most often to replace sentiments that we do not know how to say, feel uncomfortable saying, or feel will result in conflict if said plainly. If you feel that your youth is trying to find creative ways to have their needs met, it might be valuable to sit with them, perhaps even first making a promise that they can say what they need to say without repercussions (do not go back on your word if they trust you with something), and gently asking them how you can help. You might start by asking “When you say “X”, what does that mean for you?” and then move into asking how you can better support them.
Putting language to our feelings is hard. It may be helpful to ask, “what does X feel similar too?”, “What is the most exaggerated way you could explain this feeling?”, “how does this feeling make you want to position your body?”. Learning to identify and name our emotions and feelings is, I believe, the first step to being able to recognize and advocate for our needs.
What to do Next: Establishing a Support Plan
Once you and your youth have identified the meaning behind their code word, it can be helpful to establish a pact and a plan: from here on out, if your youth says their code word, or a new code word, you will know what it means and you or they can facilitate Step Two, and, over time, Step Three. Step Two is an agreed upon short term fix to change your youth’s current situation or feeling. While Step Two should be seen as a quick remedy to the discomfit or need that is being felt, Step Three is a long-term solution to address the underlying need. For instance, let’s say that Tim regularly wants a hug and says, “I love you” to his dad. Awesome! Except, Tim’s dad notices that Tim seems to need more affection and affirmations of love on Thursdays. By getting curious, Tim’s dad (let’s call him John) finds out that there are science tests every Thursday. By talking with Tim, John hears that Tim is really struggling with feeling like his test scores effect his self-worth. Tim and John create a plan and a pact. From now on, if Tim says, “It’s Thursday today”, John will know that his son needs some extra support. John and Tim decide that each Thursday John will call Tim at lunch and check in, while giving him some extra verbal affection and support, and making sure that Tim knows that, whatever his score, he is loved. This is Step Two. Tim and John decide Step Three is to have sometime together every Wednesday evening to just to relax and make sure that Tim is feeling super loved, valued, and supported. Additionally, they make a conscious effort to not put importance on grade., test scores, or external “markers of success”. In this instance, “I love you”, which is code for “I am anxious and feeling unlovable” is transformed into a solid plan to make sure Tim is feeling extra love when he is needing it.
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