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3 Ways to Be a Better Listener With Your Kids

Here are some tips for communicating when their guard is up.

Key points

  • Checking in frequently with kids and being present with them in parallel creates opportunities for conversation.
  • Discussing low-pressure topics with kids during small tasks or car rides invites conversation indirectly.
  • Keeping a level head when listening to kids helps to maintain trust and encourage honesty.

DD was a high school student when her parents sought a psychiatric evaluation because she had stopped doing her school work and hanging out with friends. Our initial visit started out in silence; any questions I asked were met with death stares and shrugs. She wasn’t ready, willing, or able to share what was going on with this stranger she had just met.

With kids who can’t tell me much with direct questions, my strategy can be summed up as: “Stop trying so hard.” First, I consciously take a breath and a beat. Next, I lean back and drop my shoulders. Then, I shift my focus to active listening and observing. If any topic comes up that triggers a hint of a smile or a bit of animation in their demeanor, I try to engage gently in that direction. They play video games? Tell me more. They want to complain about “stupid” things their friends and parents do? I am here to listen. They saw something interesting on YouTube or TikTok? I ask if they can show me. Following these strands weaves the conversation into the broader tapestry of their life on their terms.

By the end of our fourth meeting, we uncovered some paralyzing OCD symptoms that were interfering with function in all domains—from school to video games, from friendships to learning how to drive. This helped me make a diagnosis and develop a plan for further evaluation and treatment.

Of course, most of the time when we interact with our preteens and teens, we aren’t trying to diagnose them. But the fundamentals of effective listening share core features. We talk often about how important it is to listen to children, but that conjures stock images of sitting at the kitchen table. We ask, they answer, and we listen—which is great when it happens! But listening more often requires laying bits of groundwork. Answers often come to us in pieces, in unexpected places, and at unexpected times.

Three cornerstone strategies can improve the likelihood of your child talking about what’s on their minds:

  1. Frequent opportunities
  2. Indirect communications
  3. No-judgment/no-shock reaction zones

Frequent Opportunities

This means being present at different times, places, and contexts, and it means not being intrusive or demanding. If your kids are around, even if they aren’t actively engaging with you, take some time just to sit nearby. They might be on their phones or doing their homework. Without hovering, just sit and catch your breath in their presence. You can even be on your phone intermittently. Maybe sit with a cup of tea or something you’re working on. The goal is to be present in parallel, but still present.

Other opportunities come up if they seek you out to ask you a question or tell you something routine, or even mundane. When you are able, try to refocus yourself to fully listen and engage, even if it seems like something minor. Sometimes there’s more to what’s on their mind, or a further conversation can evolve in this informal context. Take these opportunities to listen when they come to you.

There’s also the informal, supportive check-in. If they haven’t come out of their room for a while, knock on their door and ask if they need a snack or a drink. Even if they have been playing video games instead of doing homework, they still need to eat and drink. It’s an opportunity to engage. If they are irritated or tell you to go away, that is ok. Tell them to come find you if they need anything. That opens doors for them to seek you out later.

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The car can be a great place for indirect communications
Source: Antonov Maxim/Shutterstock

The car is a great place to talk to kids because you don’t have to make eye contact. Listen to what they’re saying to you. Don’t interrogate, but pay attention and be ready to engage if they bring something up. If they shut you down when you ask a question, sit quietly for a while and then go in a different direction; maybe let them choose the music.

Indirect Communications

Direct questions from adults are some of the least fruitful ways of listening to kids about their lives. We tend to focus on adult-defined outcomes such as schoolwork, homework, tasks, chores—doing and achieving. I think of indirect as meaning any communication in which I am not demanding or expecting an answer. This means being curious about their lives and seeing where they take you. Ask them about their music or their games, not just about school and grades.

If teenagers sometimes shut you out when you ask, that’s OK—it’s age-appropriate. But they will feel more encouraged to come to you if you have shown interest and haven’t pressured direct questions about your worries and expectations.

Doing activities together is another form of indirect communication. The focus is on the task, taking pressure off “talking about things.“ And by activities, I don’t mean just the extracurricular activities that you support, but also informal activities at home. Things you can invite them to do with you. These include simple, practical, or everyday tasks such as fixing a door handle, making dinner, baking cookies. If they join, great. If not, that is ok too—they may wander back to you or join you the next time.

Antonov Maxim/Shutterstock
Shared activities like taking out the trash are great times to talk casually.
Source: Antonov Maxim/Shutterstock

Doing chores with kids also creates opportunities for listening. Walking the dog, feeding the cat, taking out the trash—all are moments that can actually be a setting for listening when done together. My youngest and I still stop to look at the stars when we take the trash out together—something we started doing when they were young. It provides a mindful moment that has sometimes brought up something from school or with friends. Shared moments like this in an otherwise busy day, while doing an unpleasant chore, can foster deeper communication and create pleasant memories.

No-judgment/No-shock Zones

If you are opening up opportunities for listening, you may hear things you don’t expect or things that worry or even anger you. Your responses in those moments can build up or break down the lines of communication going forward. Not being shocked and not judging doesn’t mean you won’t return to the topic to address necessary concerns or outcomes. But, in that moment, keeping your cool is the most valuable tool you have.

Antonov Maxim/Shutterstock
Talking may bring up anger, but staying calm is crucial.
Source: Antonov Maxim/Shutterstock

This is particularly necessary when your child seems to be pushing to provoke or shock you. The lack of shock or judgment takes the energy out of that, which eventually opens up space for different ways of communicating.

This is not meant to say you can’t have feelings when your child tells you things. If something makes you sad or upset, you can show and share that; just wait to do so. Gather your thoughts and emotions first, and then you can share those feelings with your child.

Putting It All Together

Listening to kids—a central task of parenting—is not just about listening when they answer our questions. There are other keys to keeping lines of communication open. We need to be present, talk about anything but outcomes, and put on a game face when kids do tell us what is going on. Take that breath and a beat, drop your shoulders, lean back, and listen.