Keep Teens Talking: Learn to Listen, Not ReactParents
Listen Well to Get Teens to Talk
It is our adolescents’ job to test and push limits and to occasionally stray beyond the lines to see what is out there. On the flip side, our role as parents is to keep teens safe by setting clear and appropriate boundaries. We need to be the voice in their head that helps them maintain good judgment. Our responsibility is also parenting in ways that make our children want to share their experiences and talk about them.
It’s What We Know That Counts
Until recently, the message to parents about setting and monitoring limits focused on asking a lot of questions. Who are you going to be with, where are you going, when will you be home? The who, what, where, when, and whys we asked were the hallmarks of caring, active, involved parents. But the strategy didn’t work as well as hoped. Over time we have realized: It’s not what we ask; it’s what we know.
Too Many Questions May Lead to Lies
Asking too many questions can feel controlling and lead to lies. You could guarantee knowing what is going on if you just placed a microchip in your kid. You could put a GPS tracker on the car. You could use technology to track your teen’s phone. You could follow their texting, social media, and computer usage. But if you rely on these strategies alone, you must also accept that a savvy 9-year-old can run circles around most adults with technology. (Full disclosure: a 4-year-old can outwit me.) You must also accept that you may make your teens feel like you don’t trust them — that you are trying to control them.
To effectively monitor our adolescents, we want to be the kind of parents whose teens choose to share what’s going on in their lives. We want them to count on us to look out for them — to be a safety check — so that they can stretch without straying too far. We want to build the kind of relationship where being honest makes sense. The way we listen, tells our teens they are free to talk. Controlling our reactions tells them they can talk without fear of being judged.
Monitor and Control Our Reactions
The first step in effectively monitoring our teens is to learn to monitor our reactions. When parents serve as sounding boards — listening deeply and offering guidance when asked — young people learn to bounce ideas off of us. They allow us to help them consider how things might play out. And to support them to make decisions. On the other hand, when we react strongly, they stop telling us things they think will make us uncomfortable or angry.
Be a Good Listener
Adolescents crave adult attention (even though they sometimes push us away). Good listening is respectful. It is about giving someone full attention. Listening, and then reflecting on what you heard can help teens become aware of their own wisdom. Listening respectfully and without judgment does not mean you necessarily agree with what is being said. It is about creating a zone of safety — free from interruption, interrogation, or reaction. Parents who listen know what is going on in their teens’ lives and can protect them when necessary. They can steer their teens away from trouble and learn about areas where limits need to be set. They know when their teens are ready to expand their limits.
One of the best ways to actively listen is to check-in and reflect on what was said. Try, “I think I heard you say ______________” or “Would I be correct to think you meant ______________” or “I was following you up until ________________, could you explain what you meant after that?” This listening style is really about being an active sounding board. Someone that makes sure young people are guided to clarify their own thoughts.
Just as active listening enables you to monitor your teens, reacting to what they say shuts down communication. When we quickly judge, share our concerns, or make accusations, our teens stop talking. When we try to solve their problems, they stop sharing. Here are a few ways to avoid reacting.
Turn Off the Parent Alarm
The parent alarm screams “My child is in trouble!” It makes parents jump to the rescue before the sentence is completed. Too often we try to rescue our teens by controlling them. “Mom, I met this girl…” immediately translates into “You’re too young to date!” That could have been an opportunity to talk about healthy sexuality — but not anymore. “Dad, what would you say if a friend wants you to get drunk with him?” turns into “I knew it, Zach is a terrible influence on you. Find other friends!” This parent threw away a golden opportunity to discuss navigating peer pressure and the danger of mind-altering substances.
When teens talk about things that concern us, our natural instinct is often to go on full alert and without realizing it everything becomes a potential catastrophe that must be solved. “Mom, Dad, I might get a C- in history this quarter”is met with, “No son of mine is going to fail!” or “You’ll never get into college!” or “I’m sure it’s the teacher’s fault!” Unfortunately, these parents won’t hear any more about grades because their teens won’t want to deal with the drama.
Parents prevent further sharing when they over-empathize and take on their children’s pain as their own. “Mom, I had a huge fight with Teresa. I hate her!” is met with, “I don’t blame you! I never liked her. She never treated you well! Honestly, I never liked her mother either.” But the next day? Teresa is back to being her best friend. But this mother may never know because she took sides, and her daughter may be too embarrassed to share the fact that she’s friends with Teresa once again.
Monitor Subtle Reactions
Even subtle messages can have a big impact. Adolescents have incredibly strong sensors that pick up on criticism easily. Their fear of disappointing us, or of being judged by us, may limit further communication. In routine conversations, we can unintentionally judge, minimize, belittle, or shame. “My teacher thinks I may never learn my lines in time for the show. I think she’s right.” If this is met with, “What does he know?” or “Sweetheart, don’t worry you’ll be the star!” or “Don’t cry. It’s really not that bad,” the parent may unintentionally limit the teens’ willingness to share the feedback received from others in the future. The parent may damage trust in the teacher, add to performance pressure, or minimize the problem while teaching the teen to suppress emotions.
Adolescents still have a desire to please us. However, they are particularly sensitive to our reactions and may stop talking to spare our feelings. They also may shut down if they sense we are trying to control them. On the other hand, they crave our guidance. When our guidance is about helping them shape their own ideas, they will share their lives with us.
The Good News
The fact that listening without reaction is the key to monitoring is really good news for parents. Many people find themselves struggling to find the perfect words. This frees parents from the unrealistic pressure to always have a solution at hand. It is liberating to see young people as the experts in their own lives and to understand our role is to harness their wisdom. Sometimes that wisdom is not on the surface, but it is there ready to be tapped into and then shaped by us.