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How to Actively Listen to your Teen

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

Listening is not simply keeping quiet although that is a good place to start. Listening involves empathetic understanding - hearing the unspoken meanings behind the feelings, understanding what the other person is feeling and experiencing. Empathy involves letting go of our own judgement and assumptions, thinking that we already understand but often we are wrong. When we learn how to actively listen to our teens, we show them that we value and appreciate what they have to say.

We have forgotten how to listen well and we need to practice the skill of active listening just as we practice and learn skills like driving, writing, or playing a musical instrument. I believe that parents can create a shift in family dynamics by actively listening! Parents cannot communicate effectively if they don’t listen well.

We are not listening well in this digital age. We are becoming too distracted; we are multitasking; we have a poor attention span and our lives are moving at a faster pace with more consumer convenience in the 21st century. The results show in our relationships: we misunderstand quickly, we speak more freely without careful consideration, we argue more, and we give up on relationships more easily. We don`t always want to take the time to pursue relationships or persevere in relationships. The way people treat one another on social media testifies to this.

When our children or teens do not feel parents are listening to them, they feel disrespected and unappreciated. This creates a cycle of behavior issues due to lack of respect for parents and lack of trust in the relationships. Parents need to build trust with their teens so that teens feel safe to share with their parents.

The number one reason people do not listen well is emotional reactivity. If parents can become less reactive, teens will become less reactive. Regardless of what our teens say to us or how they behave, we are responsible for how we react.

When parents show empathy towards their teens, they learn how to become receptive, non-defensive listeners. Receptive non-defensive listeners give teens permission to get their feelings out so they feel heard. They recognize that what teens say about them or to them is not true but their feelings are. Feelings are fact to the person experiencing them. Non-defensive listeners also know how to handle difficult conversations which empowers parents to remain in control under pressure.

This is the big challenge: Parents need to learn to tolerate a certain amount of anxiety, so that they will develop the courage to engage emotionally intense situations and to resist the fight (attack and defend) or flight (retreat into silence) with teens. Not becoming reactive has a tremendous impact on relationships.

Listening well nurtures trust and respect and communicates value and appreciation which deepens relationships as children and teens feel HEARD

Here are some suggestions that will help parents to listen better:

1. Listen with reflection and rephrasing

Repeat back what you have heard to check clarity and understanding. Sometimes we "think" we have understood but we haven't. Teens & children open up to their parents more willingly if parents take the time to accurately understand for full meaning.

Example: parent to teen: "I really want to understand how you are feeling. Please tell me if I am understanding you correctly. You feel angry when I tell you how to do your chores and you feel that I am never happy with how you do them and it is never good enough." This dialog opens up the conversation about chores as the parent acknowledges how the teen is feeling so that the teen feels heard.

Reflecting offers a wonderful way to build trust as the parent shows appreciation for the teen`s point of view.

2. Listen with your eyes

Listening with your eyes is about being fully present. Listening well is about giving our children our full attention with no distractions. We listen with our eyes (look up from devices), our minds (think about what they are saying), our hearts (empathy), our body language, facial expressions and our tone of voice. When we communicate, we are not only communicating with audible sounds - there are many non verbal ways that we show we are interested or not interested. We cannot fool our children and pretend we are listening; it`s about being authentic.

Teen boys tend to communicate better "side by side - doing an activity together can offer a great opportunity to communicate and connect on a deeper level.

Our tone of voice can either sound encouraging and supportive or have negative overtones like sarcasm, skepticism or mistrust. It`s not always what we say but how we say it - it’s the way hard things get said that determines whether or not they get heard.

3. Listen without the intent to reply

Most of us do not listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply. We need to listen without listening to our own agenda and thinking that what we have to say is more important than what our teens have to say. This is very egocentric.

Parents are often quick to reply to teens with judgement, criticism, advise or opinions and teens do not always feel safe to speak to parents. When parents do not show interest in their teens opinions, or try to understand their perspectives, then teens will not show interest in what parents have to say. Jumping in with an agenda does not enhance the relationship - it only shuts down conversations and drives teens further away.

What kind of reply do you normally respond to your teens with? (criticism, strong opinions, interrogation, advise, solving problems, lecturing)

How do you respond when your teens express a different view point?

Do you respect their opinion or argue your points across?

How does this affect your relationships?

Parents need to let go of needing to reply with an agenda and rather encourage teens to "say more" as parents listen more. If teens get defensive, it may be that they feel parents don`t listen or respect them for their points of view and they feel their views are not important.

Example: "That is an interesting perspective. Tell me more about that."

“The single most important thing you can do to develop a cooperative relationship is to listen what your child has to say. Once children have had a chance to say what`s on their minds – and have their feelings acknowledged – they become more receptive to what you have to say.” The Lost Art of Listening – Dr. Michael P. Nichols

4. Listen without Speaking

We have two ears and one mouth but we speak more than we listen! When we practice listening without speaking, we encourage the other person to speak as much as possible as we practice being attentive. We need to make sure we understand before we respond. If we need to interject, remember to always encourage your teens to say more - so you speak less.

Being quiet and practicing active listening can be hard sometimes because it involves a loss of control and sometimes we are afraid of what we may hear our teen say about us or to us, and it feels unsafe to relinquish control. It takes self control to let go of control and as you speak less and show more appreciation and understanding, your teen will soften.

5. Listen with Questions

Questions are a great way to encourage teens to "say more" which helps with emotional reactivity as it gives the parent a chance to calm down and think of a question rather than make a reactive statement in the heat of the moment. Parents normally focus on the teens attitude and behavior without understanding their feelings first or understanding fully what the issue is about and this ends up in an argument. Their actions communicate pain and frustration and the parent needs to understand where the anger is coming from.

We can also use questions together with reflecting.

Example: "Could you please clarify what you meant when you said..........?" The teen responds and then the parent reflects back. "You feel misunderstood and hurt."

Questions helps parents avoid making false assumptions or jumping to conclusions as they explore what`s going on. Questions also stop parents from problem solving or saying too much (advising, lecturing) and helps parents practice restraint. As long as questions are not probing or interrogation, questions work really well for more clarity of the situation.

6. Listen regardless

Listen regardless of bad behavior, immaturity or the annoyance of your teen. Listen because it`s about relationships. It`s about trust and respect. Parents will not get respect unless they give respect.

As parents listen, and create space for teens to develop critical thinking, self-management and independence, as teens feel valued and appreciated for what they have to say, teens will open up and share more with their parents, improving relationships and family dynamics.

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Proverbs 12:11

The right word at the right time has power to heal and strengthen, to guide and rescue. It is like an apple made of gold set on a beautiful sliver platter.

Now that I know better, I will do better.

We can start listening better TODAY.

Resources: The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols


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