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Listening: A Key to Successfully Guiding Adolescents

Knowing Who’s the Expert in Your Teen’s Life

Who's the expert in your adolescent's life?

It's not me or any other person claiming to have expertise in parenting or adolescent development. You know a lot more about your child than any of us do. But you know who knows more about your teen's inner life and environment than you do?

He does.

Don't get me wrong. I think you have plenty of wisdom and experience to share. It is just that I know that in their struggle for independence, kids sometimes reject our parental advice precisely when it may make the most sense to them. They are so uncomfortable with how much they rely on us, that circumstances that remind them of how much they need us may stir rebellion.

Parents are most effective when we serve as the stable lighthouse on the shore from which our children can safely navigate their environment. We want to be there as the most trusted person they can bounce ideas off of as they test the waters.

It doesn't matter how much you may intellectually grasp the importance of your child's growing independence, getting out of the way is a tough challenge. We want to help, guide, and even "fix" our kids. But we have to remind ourselves that when we allow them to figure things out for themselves, we convey the powerful message-"I think you are competent and wise."

Parents so oftten ask me "What do I say when . . .?" My answer goes something like this, "It matters less what you say than how you listen." Listening is a far more effective tool than lecturing in building both confidence and competence.

Here are a few key points on effective listening:

Know (or take a good guess) When Your Teen Wants to Talk

If only our kids held office hours or started conversations with, "I'd like to talk now. Do you have some time?" Teens rarely come to parents with a well-organized agenda. Instead, they approach us in as many different ways as there are temperaments and moods. Sometimes they come in silence, perhaps with a telltale furrowed brow that says they're upset. Other times they feign indifference, overemphasizing that "What, me care?" attitude, hoping it sparks our attention. They may try the "I have a friend who..." approach to seek advice without needing to disclose. Rage-Red-hot anger that blames us for their problem is a too common - and particularly painful - approach. Why blame us? Because we are the ones who will receive their rage and still be there for them. Withhold your defensiveness and instead try, "You seem to need to get something off your chest. I'm here to listen."

Be Available

The timing of adolescent's needs rarely meets our schedules, so flexibility is key. No matter what you planned, when your kid reaches out, listening becomes the most important thing you can do.

Create "Spontaneous" Opportunities to Listen

Forced conversations set up defensive barrierrs. Some of the best conversations may occur when you're just relaxing together. Boys in particular, may be more comfortable talking about their feelings when they can look around and act like they don't care. This makes car rides great opportunities.

Keep the Ball Rolling

The key to getting a teen to open up is to say very little. Use short phrases that reassure and prompt more conversation. Use the power of silence. Saying nothing, while being totally present, sends a clear message of acceptance. It doesn't mean you approve of everything being said; it means only that you are glad it is being said. When you are about to have your wisdom flow, refrain! Instead, offer brief statements that let your teen know you're happy she's talking and that you are eager to hear more. Some examples of these admittedly somewhat awkward phrases include:

  • Tell me more...
  • Please keep talking. I'm really interested...
  • It sounds like you have a lot on your mind; I'm not in a hurry...
  • I love that you're so open and honest with your feelings...
  • It means a lot to me that you feel comfortable talking to me...
  • You're doing a great job of describing what happened...

Be Clear About How Hard You are Really Trying to Understand

Be certain you are completely clear that you have gotten the story straight. If you aren't quite sure, you might say, "This is what I heard. Did I understand you correctly?" or Could you repeat that? I want to be sure I understand what you're going through...

Check to make sure you understand your teen's emotions by saying. "It seems that you are feeling.... Is that right?" or "When something like that happened to me, I felt like.... Do you feel a little like that?"

Avoid Conversation Stoppers

More than anything kids hate being judged, and they'll stop talking or avoid future conversations if you have reacted too strongly or they feel they have upset you. You never want kids to avoid telling you what is going on in their lives because of their desire to spare you.

Teens are hyperalert to our views and attitudes, especially our critical opinions, and they pick up even the smallest clues about how we feel. Try hard to listen without judging ("Well that wasn't too bright was it!!), fixing ("Let's come up with a plan!"), moralizing ("Didn't we teach you better?"), minimizing ("Its not such a big deal."), negating ("I don't see a problem here."), catastrophizing ("I knew this was going to blow up in your face, now no one will look at you the same!"), and shaming ("How could you do this to yourself?").

Turn Off The Parent Alarm!!!!!!!

It's our parent alarm - that panicky feeling that arises whenever we sense that our children might be in trouble that may be the greatest barrier to ongoing conversations. As soon as our alarm goes off, we immediately proclaim restrictions to "protect" our children. But to our kids the alarm feels a lot like judgment and overreaction.They'll remember not to come to you again.

"Mom, I met this Girl."
"You're too young to date!!" That's a lost opportunity for a discussion about healthy sexuality.

"Dad, I think Paul is smoking some weed..." "Never go over there! Don't you dare hang out with him!" That's a lost opportunity for a discussion about drugs, peer pressure, and especially how grateful Dad is that his son has come to talk to him about drugs.

Done listening? Remember who the expert is.

Sometimes, there may be absolutely nothing else we should do but be fully present as a sounding board. At other times, though, a child needs guidance. The best way to figure this out is to ask a simple question: "How can I be most helpful to you?"

When you sense your teen needs guidance, start with, " are you thinking of handling this?" Occasionally, our teens will come to us for direct advice. When that happens, go ahead and give it, but don't give it via an unintelligible lecture. Facilitate your teen to figure it out on his own, using real life examples peppered by opportunities for him to fill in the blanks or respond to open-ended questions. If you can facilitate him to come up with his own solutions he will own those solutions. His competence will grow. He'll have nothing to rebel against, because the plan will be his.

You have wisdom that comes from experience. But one of the wisest things you can do as a parent is genuinely respect that your teen is the very greatest expert on him or herself. The best lessons are those that your teen will figure out on her own - sometimes while you're listening. The ones with the most long-lasting impressions are those that will be gleaned under your loving, genuinely respectful guidance.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is the co-author of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century" with Susan FitzGerald, and the author of The American Academy of Pediatrics' Book "Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings." More importantly, he is the father of two teen daughters and is learning (and making mistakes) every day.