Listen on their terms, not yours.
Despite what you think, your teenagers want to talk to you. Most days it does not seem that way. Kids bury their faces in their phones, texting at quantum speeds. Who knew fingers could even move that fast?
Kids find time for Snapchat but ignore questions about what they want for dinner. Kids want to talk to you on their terms, not yours. Mine seems to want to converse at the most inconvenient times.
They are Chatty Cathy after I finish a 36-hour hospital shift and can barely keep my eyes open. When a teen is not in the mood to talk, you can not force it. As parents, we can fight it and lose or embrace it and win.
I frequently make this common parental communication mistake.
I ask a question like, “How was school?” This generic, mundane conversation starter is predictably answered with the one-word conversation ending response “fine.”
I know better than to ask these types of questions, but I fall into this conversation trap. To have a meaningful conversation with our children, we need to employ specific tools.
Ask better questions
Conversations with my children are more impactful when I ask something more specific such as “What was the funniest thing that happened at school today.” I also like to ask something that triggers emotion like “What was something that frustrated you today?”
When they respond, I practice active listening. Active listening involves giving them my full attention while responding with empathy and engagement. I ask more profound follow-up questions. I try and avoid judgment or direct advice.
Listen when they want to talk
When kids signal they are ready to chat, then I make myself available. I put down the phone and turn the computer off. I make eye contact and square my body to them. These subtle tactics make a huge difference. It communicates to your kids that their words matter.
Even if I am not in the mood, I mentally remind myself that they are. The other day my son asked a simple question about my job that evolved into a long discussion about entrepreneurship. My 6th-grade daughter wanted to tell me all about the puberty video they watched at school.
Both topics caught me off guard, but I made sure I was open and ready to listen when they signaled they wanted to talk.
Avoid advice and judgment
Most challenging for me on my fatherhood journey is learning to avoid giving direct advice. Advice triggers defensiveness. Phrases like, “You should” or “I would have” can be belittling to a teenager.
This communicates that they have done something wrong or could have handled it better. Teens feel judged, and as a result, shut down or walk away. Teenagers (and adults) tune out advice, but they will remember stories.
Provide advice through experience sharing
Replacing judgment words by experience sharing allows the dialogue to evolve. I try sharing a story from my past that relates to their issue. Stories where I experienced success have an impact, but stories where I failed or could have handled it better have even more.
These moments demonstrate vulnerability and authenticity. Teens will apply what they heard from your experience to their own life.
All kids want to be heard and understood. Teens understand parents will not always agree with what they have to say, but they want to feel that they were heard and valued.
When my kids open up about an issue, my responses show empathy. Phrases such as, “that must be really hard on you” go along way. These responses show that you are listening and understand how they feel.
Tools in our parental tool belt
Parenthood is a journey for all of us. Active listening, sharing from experience, and showing empathy are key tools in our parental tool belt we can use to improve our relationships with our children.
Blog Author: Dr. Jeff Livingston