For anyone who has worked with me, you know I focus a lot on the skill of validation with teenagers because I have seen repeatedly how powerful this can be. Another skill that is powerful with teenagers is listening. I know…this may seem like a very basic and obvious skill; however, it is not always used as effectively as it can be. Practicing good listening with teenagers can sometimes be challenging. The reason this can be a hard skill to use with teenagers is that they often don’t want to talk about anything important with their parents, so when they do decide to open up, feeling heard is important.
Teenagers shut down from their parents for a variety of reasons. One major reason is that they don’t think their parent will understand or approve of things going on in their life. Another reason I have seen a lot, is not as obvious. The reality is that teens want to be “grown up” and “independent” and they are working to separate from their parents. Despite this, they are still quite dependent, which causes them internal conflict. Sometimes it can be scary for teens to realize how much they still rely on their parents or guardians so they do things to try to disengage.
Does your teenager spend energy pushing you away to prove how much they DON’T need you (which…FYI…they are trying to prove to themselves more than to anyone else)? Because of this, it is important for you to take advantage of the opportunities when your teenager does want to talk to you by being fully present and really listening to them. If they feel heard…they will be more likely to open up to you in the future.
Below are some tips and things to think about when listening to you teen:
Pay attention and be aware of when they want to talk. It is not always so obvious, and they may not say, “do you have a minute to talk”. They may be doing something else to get your attention. They may even be yelling, or they may just move into closer proximity of you. In such situations, you can simply say, “if there is anything you want to talk about, I am here to listen”. Keep it simple and don’t press them for information.
Be undistracted when they start talking. Ignore your phone, TV or any other distractions around you as much as possible so that they feel they have your undivided attention. If they believe that what they are saying is important to you, they will keep talking.
Make sure your body language gives the message you are listening. Regardless of what they are saying, try to be relaxed, attentive and non-threatening while they are talking (if they are sitting, sit with them and don’t stand over them, etc.).
Make conversations feel less threatening if needed. Sometimes sitting face to face is too much for teenagers. Maybe talk while doing dishes, shooting a basketball, riding in the car, or doing some other activity. This may take the pressure off them and make it easier for them to say what they really want to say because they won’t be looking directly at you.
Stay calm. Being judgmental or having a strong emotional reaction will shut them down. If they feel like you are judging them or that they really upset you, they will back away from the conversation and potentially not come to you in the future. This can be difficult to do since your teen may be talking about something that you disapprove of, something that scares you or even something that shocks you. Trying to keep your emotions in control will allow the conversation to continue so that you can get all the information and let your teenager know that they can come to you, even with upsetting information. Just to be clear, I am not suggestion that you don’t respond or even take action if you are concerned by what you are hearing, I am only suggesting that you do it in a calm manner so that your teen will feel comfortable coming to you in the future.
Remember there is power in silence. Sometimes just listening and hearing what they are saying without judgement, is more effective than trying to offer advice or trying to “fix” something with which they are struggling. If they feel they can be honest with you without you judging them or telling them what they should do, they will be more likely to come to you again.
Respond in a way that keeps them talking. If you do respond to them, ask a non-threatening question or ask for clarification rather than just giving them your opinion or telling them what you think they should do. Say something like, “that sounds difficult, what you do think you might want to do to make it better?” You are not lecturing, advising or judging – you are being curious and letting them know you are interested in their thoughts.
I want to be clear that if your teenager has done something really wrong or if they are unsafe that you should not just sit and listen to them – in those situations you will need to step in with consequences or an intervention that is in the best interest of your child. I am talking about all the other situations that arise where your teenager is working on being independent, trying to figure things out on their own and dealing with the difficult things that come up in the life of a teenager.
If they know you will listen they will come to you, and often it matters less what you say and more that you are just there as a support to listen to them.
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