For many years I trained to teenagers to become peer counselors. In the first class we would pose the question “Do you think teens tend to talk more to their peers or parents when they face a problem?”. They consistently reported that the preference was to talk with peers. “So why do you think that is?”, we’d ask. An active discussion would ensue, and inevitably they would develop a list of parent behaviors that interfered with effective interaction:
- Not taking me seriously
- Being distracted
- Telling me what to do
- Saying “I told you so”
- Being judgmental
- Being dismissive
- Giving advice
- Becoming controlling
- Invalidating my emotions
- Being too protective
- Not paying attention
And this is the short list! So what’s left?
Listening is a lot harder than it sounds. People stop listening when they disagree – and they begin thinking about their response. To encourage young people to talk we must inhibit this urge. We need to signal an openness to what they have to say, even when it activates our own emotions. Practice listening to your teen by using these tips:
- Ask open-ended questions in response to what your teen shares.
- Notice when the urge to disagree or interrupt arises, concentrate on elongating your exhale and stay focused on what your teen is saying.
- When you notice an urgency in your response, slowly count to three in your mind before saying anything.
- Validate your teen’s emotion, let them know that the emotion makes sense given the thoughts and circumstances that feed it.
- Ask permission before giving advice; if your teenager says they don’t want your advice, move on.
- Communicate faith in your teenager. Let them know that you believe in them and ask how you can help.
- Lean on others in your own life to get support. Being a parent of a teenager is hard, it’s important to recharge your own batteries.
Be intentional about creating an environment conducive to openness and your teen will likely share more with you. Remember that teenagers are establishing their own identities and need to pull away from parents and adults to make room for this. The process is predictable and developmentally appropriate. Teens consider the peer group the second family, therefore it’s normative for them to share more with their peers in general. Use these techniques to improve your listening skills and your teens will have the benefit of the unconditional love and support available to them in their “first family “as well!