Learning to Listen to Your Teen

Dr. Michelle Deering

Many parents of teenagers think their teens don’t listen to them. While a teen’s “selective” listening can be frustrating, the complaint most teens express (in therapy or another “safe place”) is that they don’t feel their parents are listening to them.

Listening is a skill that can fall by the wayside amidst the plethora of parental pressures and high school-related stressors. Next to unconditional love, listening is the greatest gift you can give your teenage son or daughter.

There is an old adage that humans have two ears and one mouth so that we might do twice as much listening as talking. Here are three key components to listening.

1. The first component of listening is a physiological act: Hearing with one’s ears and eyes. Your ears take in information that is verbally conveyed to you; you hear words. With your (two) eyes you are taking in your teenager’s behavioral cues and the environment or circumstances in which those behaviors occur. It’d be one thing if your son or daughter said, “Yes mom” or “Yes dad” with an inflection in their voice accompanied with doe-like eyes staring at you. It’d be another thing if the same “Yes mom (or dad)” was conveyed through gritted teeth, a grimacing face, and metered speech. Same words; two different sentiments being conveyed. Which one do you hear?

2. The second component of listening involves a volitional act: Choosing whether or not to give your full attention to what is and how things are being conveyed. This is your choice.

3. If you choose to give someone your full attention, then you unlock a doorway through which you can enter into the realm of the third component of listening — the emotional act of listening, which is listening with your heart. This is the realm in which you learn something new (about your son or daughter) that you did not know beforehand. It is this type of listening that can give you more understanding about your son or daughter.

For parents, though, listening in the emotional realm can get hard(er) as life and your teen’s extracurricular logistics get more complicated. Here are a few suggestions that may help you make progress in the area of listening better.

First, take a week to step back and “just notice” what a “typical week” is like for your son or daughter. When are his or her tests and quizzes? What or when is your teen eating (or not eating)? Where is your teen spending the most time in your home? What friends’ names are coming up (or not coming up) in conversation? What is his or her typical facial expression lately? This type of repositioning on your part may involve a short period of time where you are being a little less vocal, which may be hard to do. However, doing this will help you get a better lay of the land(scape) of your teenager’s life.

Secondly, look for lull-moments in the rhythm of your family’s day. Then “just notice” what your teenager is doing during those moments. Is he or she looking for the next activity to do or “orbiting” the vicinity of your personal space, or are they nowhere to be found? This will give you insight into what may be more optimal times to listen to your son or daughter with your heart.

No one ever said parenting was going to be easy. However, becoming a better listener is worth the effort and will result in a deeper connection with your teenager in the long run. Are you game to give it a try? Let us know how it goes.

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