Listening to Your Adolescent
Listening sounds simple, but is actually complicated to do.
Posted October 3, 2011
After a meeting with some middle school parents where we had been talking about communication during adolescence, a dad came up to me and shared a wonderful line from the movie, "Pulp Fiction." One character asks another: "Are you listening or just waiting to talk?"
The dad's point was that this question could be leveled at a lot of parents with a teenager -- adults so preoccupied with their own point of view that they don't really attend to what their son or daughter is trying to say.
This made me mindful of how important and difficult listening is to do. Where to begin?
Start by understanding that listening can be very expensive. For example, you have to shift focus off yourself and onto someone else. You have to invest energy in paying attention to what they are saying. You have to process what is being said. You may hear uninteresting or disturbing information you would rather not know. Based on what you've been told, you may feel obligated to do something in response.
So when another parent unburdens to you about the alarming difficulties they are having with their teenager, one of your child's good friends, you come away glad to have listened and been a comfort, but stressed with worry by what you learned. Could your own child be adversely affected by this association? Is there something you should do?
Then there are the occasions when you have listened at length to your teenager only to be told you haven't been listening at all. Turns out, the adolescent is making one or more of four charges against you. How does she know you haven't been listening?
"Because you don't understand what I have to say."
"Because you don't agree with what I say."
"Because you won't change your mind based on what I say."
"Because you won't do what I say!"
Of course none of these adolescent accusations have anything to do with listening which is simply taking the time and devoting the attention to hearing what someone has to tell.
It's when parents actually refuse to listen that they can be silently abusive. They won't take the time. They won't devote the attention. They won't show the interest. "You never listen to me!" complains the teenager, acting hurt because the message he takes to heart may be: "I'm not worth listening to!"
That's one important point for parents to remember: listening affirms that the speaker has something worthwhile to say. Not listening denies or dismisses that value.
A second point is that listening is an investment parents need to make. Make no investment in listening and there may be no listening or speaking up in return. "Why should I listen or talk to you when you never listen to me!" Listening enables communication. Not listening shuts both aspects of communication down.
"But," protests the busy parent, "my teenager picks the most inconvenient times to talk - when I'm really tired or in the middle of a program or have something I have to get done." It's one of the hard realities of parenting adolescents - a good time for them to talk is frequently a bad time for you to listen.
However, parents need to understand that the teenager's readiness to talk in a seriously self-disclosing way depends on happenstance, emotion, and mood coming into some mysterious internal alignment that set the stage for momentary openness to occur -- all factors that she doesn't usually control. "I don't feel like talking now," is often not a lame excuse, but a psychologically valid explanation.
So when parents say, "Not now, we'll talk later", later never happens because the door to readiness has been closed. The best time for your teenager to speak you about something important to her is when she feels ready to talk. Parents who are the best listeners are those who are most accessible. They are willing to drop whatever they are doing whenever the adolescent has something needful to say.
Then there is the huge problem of electronic distraction that interferes with everyone's capacity to purely listen to anyone in this increasingly technological age.
So you want to talk to your teenager but she is on the computer or texting, or your teenager wants to talk to you but you are watching TV or plugged into the radio, so in either case the talker is given partial attention, partial listening, having to talk to the side of somebody's head.
The age of multi-tasking and competing means of communication has created the chronic condition of divided attention. What is the solution? If you really want to listen or to be listened to face to face, go for clear channel communication - attending to what each other is saying with all electronic devices turned off.
Always, of course, assert your right (and responsibility) to limit your listening - in the cases of emotional overload and unacceptable communication.
Giving supportive listening can lead to emotional duress for the listener. As your high school child emotionally unloads about the anxieties and injuries of first romance, while she feels better, you may emotionally load up with concern and feel worse. So there may be times when you need to say: "That's all I can listen to right now. I'm feeling worn down and need to take a break. In (specify a time) let's talk some more because I want to hear what else you have to say."
Listening to deliberately hurtful communication is unacceptable and you need to declare this. So to your middle school child, who is learning from peers to use language more aggressively, you also have something to say. "I am willing to hear what you have to say so long as you say it appropriately. However, name-calling, insulting slang, sarcasm, yelling, threats, or expressions of verbal abuse are not appropriate. I don't talk that way with you, and I don't want you to talk that way with me. Besides, if I let you speak to me in this fashion, later on you may do the same to someone else you value, but because they are not your parent, they might end the relationship, which could be sad for you. So stopping this deliberately hurtful communication is not just for my sake, but for your own."
Perhaps the hardest time for parents to listen to a teenager is when there is active disagreement. Now the temptation is to listen with one's mind made up, preoccupied with one's defense, preparing one's rejoinder, focusing on what one is going to say next, not on what the adolescent is saying now.
At this point, if you find yourself missing much of what your teenager is trying to communicate, ask yourself the "Pulp Fiction" question: "Am I really listening or just waiting to talk?"
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)
Next week's entry: "Down time" for parents and adolescent