Four Easy Ways to Listen to Your Teenager Better
By Katie MacDougall, LPC
"It's not fair!"
"_____'s parents wouldn't do this!"
The dreaded teenage years. Ever wonder how you got here? Suddenly your mostly well-behaved, respectful kid is a landmine of emotions just waiting to explode. The smallest thing can set them off. Sometimes it seems like they don't even know why they're upset. You try to talk and it gets worse. You try to do something as a family and they sit with their headphones on, a phone in hand, or go to their bedroom instead.
So how can you talk to your teen?
It all starts with one simple, but seemingly impossible word: listen. Here are four ways to listen better to your teenager.
Listen with your body. Model the respect you want them to show. Stop what you're doing and show them you're listening. Don't be on your phone, washing dishes, cooking dinner, or responding to an email. Look at them and turn your body toward them. Uncross your arms and take your hands off your hips. Relax your face and try to look calm. Nod your head as you listen and make sure not to smile or laugh when your teen is saying something that's serious (even if it seems silly or minor to you). Think of this like listening to a co-worker or another adult: gaining respect requires giving respect.
Studies show that teens often struggle interpreting nonverbal communication accurately. It's important to model the right nonverbals so teens learn, but it's also important to show you are listening in other ways. If this is your only method of listening, your teen may not understand that you're listening. More importantly, they may not understand that you care.
Listen with your words. Chances are listening with your words is going to start with no words at all. Just let your teen talk at first. You'll get your turn, but they need their turn too. Next, summarize or repeat back what they said. Empathize. Use phrases like, "It sounds like your teacher’s response really hurt you" or "That must have really been upsetting when I asked you to clean your room." This could also include clarifying. For example, "So it felt frustrating when I said your homework has to be done before you play video games?" This isn't the time to correct, give your opinion, try to fix it, or give your point of view. Just let them know they're heard, you care, and you respect them enough to hear their side.
While this may seem like a waste of time, research shows that all of us need to be heard in order to enter our rational type of thinking. In Dan Siegel’s “The Whole-Brain Child,” Siegel names the fight, flight, or freeze part of the brain the “downstairs brain” and the rational part of the brain the “upstairs brain.” Your teenager may look like an adult, but their upstairs brain likely has about a decade of development left. That means they likely need help climbing to the upstairs part of their brain. We all need empathy in order to climb upstairs. Look at empathizing as helping them climb up before you can rationally problem solve, correct, or advise.
Listen with your response. After your teen has gotten enough time to talk without interruption, arguing, or you defending yourself, it's time to respond. Some conversations may not require advice-giving, explanation, discipline, or rule-clarification. If your teen is just talking about what a kid did at school, it might be a good opportunity to just empathize. However, some conversations require you explaining yourself or even correcting behavior. The key here is to still explain that you understand what they said. It could be a good opportunity for a compromise or a discussion about how to make a certain frustration work better. However, it could also be a time where you have to say tell your teen they have to obey your rules. For example, "I know it's frustrating when Kayla gets to ride alone with her boyfriend. It must be embarrassing sometimes and I'm sorry that feels hurtful right now. I still can't let you ride alone with your boyfriend because it’s my job to protect you, but I do want to try to help you enjoy yourself. Is there something else we could do to help?" Continue to empathize with your teen, explain your decision, and let them know you're still there for them.
You may also have to confront your teen sometimes, but empathy can be included here too. For example, "I know you're upset about not making the varsity team. It's not fair that happened, but that doesn't mean you can slam doors and yell at your little brother."
It's also important to share your feelings with your teen. Your teen may act like they don't care sometimes, but chances are they do. Saying something like, "I was scared when you didn't come home on time. I worried you might have gotten in a wreck or been hit by a drunk driver," means a lot more to a teen than, "What were you doing out so late?!"
Listen with your actions. If your teen tells you something that bothers them, make sure you try to respond to that. For example, if your teen tells you that it makes them angry when you talk about them to all your friends, make sure to try to change that behavior or at least respond more sensitively or compassionately. Similarly, if you and your teen come to a new agreement about a curfew or social media usage, make sure to follow your agreements as much as possible. When the agreement has to be broken for some reason (like the teen has to come home an hour earlier), make sure to explain the reason for the change. Teens care that you practice what you preach and they can see right through lies.
Talking to your teen will still be frustrating at times. They will still choose to respond poorly and irrationally. You will still lose your temper at times too. However, you can have enjoyable, productive conversations with them though. Teenage years can be full of hope, joy, and love, despite raging hormones and relentless boundary testing.