Active Listening for Parents

Parenting during the adolescent phase of development brings about new challenges for most parents.  A common complaint from parents is that “my teen doesn’t listen to me”, while a common complaint from teens is that “my parent doesn’t listen to me”.  These sentiments are not surprising as parents begin to struggle, often for the first time, with how to keep the lines of communication open with their child.  Good communication during your child’s adolescent years may well be the most important strategy you need to help them with their transition to young adulthood.  Teens are focused on two key challenges during adolescence:  identity and relational success.  Your efforts to help them successfully navigate these developmental tasks are dependent upon your ability to model and teach them good communication skills.

Active listening has been found to be an important parental tool to improve communication with teens.  So what is active listening for parents?  It simply means listening for the purpose of trying to understand what your teen thinks and feels, in other words, where they are coming from.  Now this may sound like a real stretch when you think about the typical definition of conversation between teenage boys and parents, which often includes repetitive questioning by you followed by one word mumbling by them such as, “sure”, “fine”, “nothing”, or “whatever”.  Nonetheless, there are six key components of the active listening process which tends to open the lines of communication with teens: 1) Paraphrasing, 2)Clarifying, 3) Giving Feedback, 4) Empathy, 5)Openness, and 6) Awareness.  Once your child enters adolescence, your parenting role will be shifting toward a more collaborative and supervisory approach as you guide them toward greater autonomy from you.

Paraphrasing and Clarifying helps you demonstrate to your teen that you want to collaborate with them to better understand their thoughts and feelings.  Paraphrasing means briefly summarizing what you heard so your teen can let you know if you heard them accurately.  Using effective paraphrasing lead-ins with teens such as, “Do you mean”; “Help me understand”; “What I hear is”; “So what happened was”; or “So how you felt was” lets your teen know you are listening.  Also, “How” questions are more likely to be answered than “Why” questions, which tend to put teens on the defensive.  For example, choose “How did that happen?” or “How can I help?” rather than “Why are your grades dropping?”; “Why are you so lazy?” or “Why is your attitude so bad?”  Paraphrasing stops miscommunication because your teen gets a chance to let you know if you heard the message wrong.  Paraphrasing also stops anger escalation and helps you remain calm even when discussing difficult topics involving poor choices or behaviors which are upsetting to you.  Paraphrasing also helps you remember what was said.  Many times parents hear one “hot button” part of the conversation, become emotionally reactive, and then miss the rest or the context that needs your attention to fully understand. Clarifying helps you hear the events in context; lets your teen know you care; and gives the message that you want to understand them.

When Giving Feedback, remember to use a non-judgmental style and express your thoughts and feelings assertively.  Assertive expression with your teen means interacting with direct, clear and specific statements in a calm manner.  It never means being aggressive, vague or indirect.  Use “I feel” language rather than “you make me so angry”.  Calmly explain how their behavior or decision impacts you, them, or others.   Giving good feedback means expressing your thoughts and feelings openly and directly, while also acknowledging your teen’s thoughts and feelings.  Actively listening with Empathy involves understanding that teen brain development is not complete (but yours is!).  When you acknowledge how your teen is probably feeling (e.g., embarrassed, frustrated, disappointed, or angry), you convey an attitude of respect which usually disarms your teen and begets more respect from them.  Try to remember that their poor choices/bad decisions are not automatically reflective of your parenting skills.  This can help you avoid becoming defensive.

Listening with Openness involves remaining open to alternative viewpoints.  Teens shut down if they believe you cannot hear the hard stuff or if you make a hasty judgment as you filter out what you don’t want to hear.  You may be missing important information and you most certainly will be missing an opportunity to influence your teen with your beliefs and values related to a certain topic.  Listening with Awareness means remaining committed to understanding your teen’s thoughts and feelings even when you are upset, angry, or disagree with them.  Don’t shy away from getting educated on topics they will come across in the broader culture.  Showing curiosity about how they think or feel is not an endorsement of their beliefs, but you gain an opportunity to express your values and beliefs with a greater chance that you will be heard.  Incorporating these six elements of active listening to improve your communication can help your teen feel connected to you.  This connection can enhance their resilience in the face of setbacks because they will feel you really hear them and understand their difficulties and stressors during the teen years.

by: Eileen Lightner, Psy.D.

Licensed Psychologist

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