Improving Communication with your Teen: Active Listening Tools

  • January 20, 2020

As teenagers start to develop, they often push their parents away as a technique to foster independence; however, this timeframe is when your child needs you the most.  According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, parental communication has significant impact on teen behavioral and emotional health, including: unhealthy weight control, substance use, suicide attempts, body dissatisfaction, depression, and low self-esteem. Thus, it is essential to simultaneously allow your teenager the room to grow while also providing enough attention to help your child feel secure and heard. Active listening skills help bridge the gap.  

Active Listening: What is it? 

In conversations, often we become so involved with being heard that we fail to understand what the other person is saying.  With teen it can be especially challenging as teenagers bring their heightened energy into a situation, and their emotions can change quickly.  It can feel a bit unpredictable!  Teenagers may trigger feelings of frustration and anger in parents, making it difficult for a parent to hear their message correctly. 

During active listening, you focus on what the other person is trying to communicate and confirm that you received the right information and intent from the other person.  Active listening is especially helpful when trying to build or maintain a bond because it fosters a sense of trust, acceptance, and respect.  Here are a few active listening steps to help improve the next conversation with your teenager: 

Starting the Conversation 

Avoid beginning conversations with “I need to talk to you about something.” Or “We need to talk.” Although your intent may be to have a serious and open conversation, a teenager will see this as confrontational and become defensive. Their walls will immediately deploy, and the deep conversation you were hoping for will not occur.  It’s best to pursue a conversation organically and naturally.  A good time would be during a walk with the dog or while riding in a car. Look for a window to start a conversation and let it flow from there.

Begin conversations with a respectful and calmly delivered question rather than a statement. For instance, “How has Nathan been doing lately?” as opposed to, “I haven’t seen Nathan coming around as much. Guess you two broke up.” Questions can lead to more questions, which moves the conversation forward. Statements, on the other hand, can appear accusatory or invasive to teenagers. 

Non-Verbal Cues

When your teen is talking, make eye contact and give them your full attention, even if the topic seems trivial to you. Events that appear insignificant to an adult can be monumental for a teen.  Lean forward to show you’re listening and involved in the conversation. 

Observe your teen’s non-verbal communications because they may say one thing and feel another. For instance, they may say they “don’t care” about an event, but they’ll be anxiously ripping a piece of paper while they talk about it. Small cues such as hugging their own body, hand gestures, and eye rolls can speak volumes. 

Listening Without Fixing

When conversing with your teen, resist the urge to provide your advice or to reprimand immediately. It’s tempting to solve their problems or get your point across, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to hear the teen’s side of things, to be empathetic, provide a safe space to talk, and allow them to make their own decisions and mistakes. What do teenagers want in a conversation with their parents? They want someone to hear them, they want empathy, and they want acceptance. 

Teenagers crave acceptance, especially from the people they love. Displaying your empathy through active listening can go a long way to bridging the divide that sometimes happens between teenagers and their parents.  Place yourself in your teenager’s shoes and avoid an adult perspective. Try not to dismiss or discount their emotions, no matter how trivial it might seem in your eyes. When conversing with your teen, they may disclose information you find troubling. If this occurs, ensure that their safety is a priority and believe them. Some teens may require support or further assistance from someone outside the family. The teen years are filled with ups and downs for both the parent and the teenager. With active listening, you can navigate the rough waters together.

If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Calabasas Child and Adolescent Psychology here.