I sighed a deep and frustrated sigh. It felt like this conversation had been going in circles, and my husband was clearly not going to be getting off the merry-go-round any time soon. We had had this conversation before…. Many times, in fact, and yet we always got stuck on the same points. I’d share what I was feeling, he would jump in with his perceived solutions (as if I hadn’t already considered them!), I’d get frustrated that he wasn’t truly hearing what I was saying, and around and around we would go. “Would you please actually listen to what I am saying instead of interjecting what you think I’m going to say?” I heard myself say, my tone taking on an all-too-familiar bite. He winced, his hand running through his hair – the tell-tale sign of his own mounting tension. At that moment, I finally saw that I hadn’t been listening to him either. We both came into these discussions armed with our own ideas, emotions, and solutions, and we had been failing to give the other person any consideration. The result was both of us coming away feeling unheard, unvalued, and unsupported.
I am sure you have a million examples of your own conversations that played out this way too. As humans, we are naturally inclined to talk. To share our feelings, our ideas, our reasoning. There isn’t a person on the planet who isn’t guilty of talking more than they listen. We don’t even realize when we are doing it to someone else, but we feel it deeply when happens to us. We all know what it is like to be shut down, overruled, and undervalued. It hurts.
As parents of tweens and teens, it has been our job for over a decade to help guide, direct, and teach the young lives in our charge. We’ve been giving instructions, managing schedules, and keeping the entire ship afloat for a very long time. If listening is hard to do in peer-to-peer relationships, it is 10 times harder in parent-child relationships, because we have always been the ones in charge and the ones with all the answers. When it comes to these big kids of ours, however, listening is a skill we must work to acquire. In my experience, I have come to the realization that listening is hands down the most powerful tool to improve relationships with our teens.
Sounds easy enough, right? Except we all know that in reality, it can be one of the hardest things to do. When our teen is telling us how our lecturing makes them feel, our first response is to tell them not to disrespect us and continue the lecture. When they are sharing a problem they are having with a friend, we want to immediately jump in and offer solutions. Shutting up and listening is rarely our first inclination. For the sake of our kids and the relationship we want with them, listening is an art form worth learning. Here are a few steps to begin to hone this new skill and watch your connection with your teen thrive:
Remind yourself why listening is so important
Listening tells them they matter
Our adolescents are searching for validation in many places that often leave them feeling “less than.” I overheard my daughter and her friend comparing a similar picture they posted on Instagram. One of them got 100 likes, the other 250. Who do you think felt more valued? Our kids spend time counting and comparing their number of likes. What they are really saying is, “See me. Value me.” Each of them is secretly asking a similar question, “Do I matter? Is who I am okay?” Listening is powerful. Listening to our teens gives them what they are so hungry for- the validation that who they are matters. Nothing conveys that you love your teen more than listening. Be curious to know them. Ask questions. If you do this more than anything else they will know they matter and have significant worth and value.
Listening tells them we are a safe place
In the case of my conversations with my husband, all I wanted was to share my feelings. To release the unrelenting weight and pressure that my concerns and hurts were causing inside. I didn’t need him jumping in and trying to correct my perceptions or solve my problems. I just wanted him to know and understand my hurt. As humans, we need to process our thoughts out loud. This is what our kids need from us too. When we listen to our kids as they share their feelings, we give them the gift of releasing those pent-up emotions. Listening lessens their anxiety, comforts their hearts, and lifts their spirits. Allow them to express when they’re upset and don’t shut them down by trying to get them to feel less upset. Getting rid of our upset feelings actually lessens their intensity and restores us to calm. This is important to remember the next time your teenager throws a fit. As hard as it is when your raging teenager is lashing out and expressing strong emotions, we can become their calm and safe place by allowing them to share those feelings and release those emotions.
Learn to be an intentional listener
When we’re truly listening, we tune in not only to what they’re saying but to what they’re not saying. Pay attention to their body language and facial expressions. Do they look sad, angry, or happy? Reflect on what you observe, “You look down.” or, “You seem frustrated.”, you don’t need to say anything else. Just wait to hear what they say in response. By making these statements you don’t come across as a snoopy or interrogating mom. Casually remarking on what you see and then giving the space for them to open up creates an opportunity for your child to share their thoughts and feelings without feeling pressured or forced into a conversation. (We all know nothing sends our teens running faster than feeling like Mom is trying to push them into something!)
Once they do begin to talk, resist the urge to interrupt, intervene, or offer advice!!! Reflect back on what you hear them say. For example, if your teen comes home from school complaining about a friend or a teacher bite back the urge to come in with your own ideas on how to soothe your kid’s hurt. Instead, try this – take notice of their feelings “I hear you’re angry”, or “You seem hurt” Then, say nothing and allow them to continue. Repeat their words back to them as closely as you can so they know you are understanding them. “Mr. Brown gave you a ‘C’ on your paper that you didn’t feel like you deserved.” or “Sheila talked behind your back to Nancy.” Then, go back to saying nothing and waiting for their response.
I know this all sounds pretty remedial but it works. Trust me and just try it. Keep it short and simple. When you don’t know what to say, a simple, “Tell me more,” goes a long way. I always tell people to aim for the 80/20 people in conversation with their kids. This means you should be listening 80% of the time, and only talking 20%. The goal here is to be intentional about letting your kid do the talking and letting them know you hear where they are coming from.
Listening doesn’t come naturally to most of us, and the majority of us are breaking a life-long habit of talking more than we listen. It is okay if you’re not perfect the first time you try! Like anything in life worth doing, it takes practice to learn a new skill! Give yourself grace when you miss the mark. You can find ways to remind yourself to be a listener and put them throughout your house. Maybe a note card on the fridge or in the car with a quote about listening, or a background on your phone that reminds you to slow down your response and reflect on what you are hearing. The important thing is to not give up and keep working on improving your listening skills! The results in your relationship are so worth it!
So the next time your kid comes barreling through the door slinging their backpack and grunting annoyed responses, remember… Slow down. Stop what you’re doing. Take a deep breath. Be quiet. And truly listen.