Focus on the Family

Tools for Listening to Your Teen

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How to really hear your teen and encourage your teen to open up to you

When we asked a group of kids ages 13 through 17 about their concerns, they said they wanted to be able to communicate with their parents in healthy, positive ways.

Can you believe it? Your teen wants a connection with you as much as you want one with him! Our kids want to talk to us!

So where’s the breakdown?

Some kids just need an invitation. Others need more time to open up. Still others, though, are like the girl who said, “Every time I attempt to talk to my parents, they either yell at me before I tell my whole story or lecture me. If they’d be more open to talk with me and let me do some more talking, I’d talk with them a lot more.”

Wherever you and your teen are on that spectrum of speaking, things can get better. And they will, when you take advantage of some tools parents and youth workers and counselors have been using with the kids they care about. Let’s help you and your teen get to a deeper level by stocking your communication toolbox.

Listening Tools

Here are seven ways to make sure you really hear your teen — and to make sure he or she knows it.

1. Give him your full attention. I know you’re so busy that you hardly have a moment to yourself. But now isn’t the time for multitasking. Turn off the TV, the lawnmower, the blender — whatever’s competing for your ears.

2. Reflect her emotions; don’t mock them. Teens love to see their feelings reflected in your face. It tells them you understand how they felt when the coach yelled at them today. If their emotions seem over-the-top or the reasons for them seem trivial, remember that their world is smaller than yours — which makes each event look bigger.

3. Restate in your own words what you heard him say. Let’s say your son is dating a girl named Jen. One day he comes home and tells you about Jen flirting with his best friend. You might say, “So, what I’m hearing you say is that it really hurt when Jen looked at Brian with the look she usually gives you.” Restating helps ensure that you’re truly hearing your teen. If you restate the situation incorrectly, it gives your teen a chance to re-explain, too.

4. Display attentive body language. Skip the eye rolling, sighs, arms crossed tightly against the chest, and looking over your shoulder or into the distance. Sit cross-legged on the floor or sofa, or turn a chair around and sit with your arms resting on the back. Lean forward slightly, nodding as appropriate.

5. Decide to be interested in what she’s saying. This can be hard after a long day at work, coming home to a teen who wants to chatter about things that seem insignificant to you. Ask God to help you want to listen. The more you pay attention and ask clarifying questions, the more you’ll find yourself interested in her life. It may help to remind yourself that what you’re really interested in is her.

6. Listen to actions. How do you do that? You notice whether your teen is slamming doors or leaving incriminating notes from a boyfriend or girlfriend around the house. Is something wrong at school? In a relationship?

7. Be alert for moments of honesty and vulnerability. Teens will, on occasion, break down and spill what’s on their hearts. When they do, give them all the time they need to share. Then ask, “Do you want me to give suggestions or help? Or do you just want me to listen?”

Location Tools

Where you communicate with your teen is important. It can make the difference between conversation and consternation. Here are four things to keep in mind about the places in which you talk:

1. Pick a place that provides an “out.” Kids say it’s easier to talk with their parents if there’s something else to focus on when things get awkward. Examples of “safety valves”: traveling in the car, eating ice cream or a meal, playing a game, walking in the park, putting a puzzle together, painting a wall, going to a museum, riding bikes. Teens want to talk, but don’t want the pressure of having to do it without a break.

2. Avoid distractions. A safety valve (see #1) is a relief; a distraction grabs attention whether you want it to or not. Is that restaurant a good place to talk, or is the music always too loud? Have you turned off your pager? If you talk in the living room, will you hear little brother bouncing that tennis ball against the garage door? One teen found that even car conversations didn’t work in her family: “Sometimes [my parents] are too concentrated on driving or whatever they are doing and don’t pay attention to what I am saying.”

3. Choose a safe place. Kids want a place where they feel at ease sharing the scary parts of their hearts. Where is that for your teen? In his room? In yours? On a jogging path? If you don’t know, it’s okay to ask.

4. If you find a place that works, stick with it. Try taking your teen to breakfast or lunch once a week. Establish a habit like this and your kids may get comfortable enough to open up, even asking hard questions about life. Try not to bring your own list of hard questions, though; your teen may begin to shy away from those mealtimes if they turn into interrogations or preaching practice.

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