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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child/teen relationship while building essential listening skills in your child/teen.
Your child’s/teen’s success depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are communicating. Listening skills can support your child’s/teen’s ability to engage in healthy relationships, to focus, and to learn. For example, children/teens must listen to their teacher if they are to follow directions and successfully navigate expectations at school. Not surprisingly, better listening skills are associated with school success.
Children/Teens ages 11-14 are in the process of carving out their identity, and their measuring stick is often their peers’ opinions and approval. They come to better understand themselves through interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers. This is a critical time to teach and practice listening skills.
Yet, anyone can face challenges when it comes to listening. With screens, including mobile devices, engaging people for hours a day, opportunities to interact with your child/teen and exercise listening skills may be missed. Listening skills require the use of a number of other important skills like impulse control, focused attention, empathy, and nonverbal and verbal communication.
For parents or those in a parenting role, the key to many challenges, like building essential listening skills, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s/teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you in growing this vital skill.
Whether it’s your eleven-year-old continuing to play video games when you’ve told them screen time is over or your fourteen-year-old daydreaming during the teacher’s instructions and not knowing how to do their homework, establishing regular ways to practice listening skills can prepare your child/teen for family, school, and life success.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to listen can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationships and responsibilities;
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage; and
- language and literacy fluency.
Tomorrow, in the long term, working on effective listening skills with your child/teen
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen cultivate effective listening skills, a critical life skill. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about listening skills by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when they struggle with focusing and listening so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you to deepen your ability to communicate with one another; and
- will grow their self-control (adding to their ability to focus attention) as well as empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child/teen in their ability to listen effectively. Your active listening to your child/teen will model the very kinds of skills you are attempting to build. You might start by asking:
- “What does it mean to truly listen to someone?”
- “How do you know that the person is truly listening to you?”
- “How do you show that you are truly listening?”
- “What are ways to convey that you are listening to someone?”
- “How do you feel when someone doesn’t listen to you?”
During a family meal, explore the question: “What does it take to listen well?” Allow each family member to respond. Model listening by allowing each person to complete their thoughts without interruption or judgment.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Children/teens are learning how to engage in healthy relationships through your loving interactions, which include learning how to listen effectively. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is working hard to learn.
- Eleven-year-olds are trying to assert their independence. As they grow their social awareness (being able to see from another person’s perspective), they may desire a new level of skill in listening for thoughts and feelings.
- Twelve-year-olds are gaining confidence and leadership abilities. Listening to peers becomes more important. Disturbing news and social issues could preoccupy them more than ever with their growing social awareness.
- Thirteen-year-olds can be highly sensitive to comments from you, teachers, and peers as they work to define their independent identity. This can challenge their listening skills as worries may cloud their focus on what you are trying to communicate.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act invincible and like they know it “all.” Despite this, they still look to adults to set boundaries, negotiate rules, and listen to their needs. Friends will be highly important in their lives, and they may spend lots of time communicating through texts, gaming, and messaging.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model listening while interacting with your child/teen. Modeling listening skills can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Set a goal for yourself. Pick a time of day when you know that you and your child/teen will be talking. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “How am I demonstrating that I’m listening? What am I doing that I want my child/teen to do?”
- Listen for thought and feeling. In addition to listening to the content of what your child/teen says, also see if you can identify the unspoken thought and feeling behind the content.
- Children/Teens still need their parents’ attention to thrive. So, why not build a sacred time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child/teen has to tell you? Turn your phone off. Set a timer if you need.
- Learn listening strategies together by trying them out.
- Get curious. Don’t stop asking questions when you get one word answers. Your child/teen needs to know that you will relentlessly work to get information from them. It is important that your child/teen knows that they cannot just outwait you. So when you ask, “How was your day?” and your child/teen says, “Fine,” don’t stop. Try, “Say more — what was fine about it?” or “What was difficult about today?” or “What went well?” or “Let’s start at the beginning,” or “What made you laugh today?” Don’t give up!
- Find opportunities to share. Model what it is like to share about your day. If your child/teen asks you how your day was, be sure to not respond with a superficial or one-word answer. Engage them about a conflict you had or a struggle you faced. See if they can help offer suggestions.
- Actively listen. Try out active listening in which one person listens to fully understand what the speaker is saying and waits until the speaker is finished talking before responding. A response could be a simple “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker.
- Paraphrase. Try out paraphrasing by echoing back to the speaker a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. You might start, “I heard you say that…”
- Seek clarification. Try out seeking clarification. Particularly if you are listening with the intent of learning something from the speaker, seeking clarification on details is important to make certain you understand. Practice seeking clarification by asking questions like, “What did you mean when you said you were upset at school? What happened?”
- Practice questioning and commenting with empathy. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own experiences, focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. For example, your child/teen might say, “Today Mrs. Smith started a new writing project. We get to write an essay on any topic we are interested in. I can’t wait.” Instead of responding with something like, “I remember when I was in school…,” which takes the focus away from your child/teen, you might say, “Sounds like you are excited about this project. That’s great! What thoughts have you had about what topic you are going to choose?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening requires practice. Your modeling will make a difference in your child’s/teen’s comfort with this style of communication.1
As your children/teens get older, it can be challenging to entice them into meaningful conversations. “Fine” might be all you get in response to “How was your day?” So, turn down the car radio. Hang around them without your phone. Offer plenty of chances to listen when they are ready to talk.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your child/teen to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. Each time your child/teen works hard to practice essential listening skills, they grow vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s/teen’s sense that they can do a task or skill successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.
- Initially, your child/teen may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate listening. You could say, “Show me a few different ways you can convey that you are listening as we talk about our day.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you listened fully to your sister and didn’t interrupt her. That’s so helpful to her.”
- There are a number of activities that require strong listening skills. Offer practice by engaging in these activities as a family.
- Riddles. Riddles are fun ways to support listening skills. Take turns asking each other riddles that require active listening as well as engaged conversation.
- Song lyrics/short clips. Take turns choosing a favorite song or short clip to listen to. As a family, discuss the lyrics or clip and what about the lyrics or clip really moved everyone.
- Twenty Questions. You probably remember playing some version of this game. It requires listening and deductive reasoning. One person thinks of something (an object, an animal, a person, etc.), and others ask yes/no questions to deduce what the person is thinking about. However, they only have 20 questions before they run out.
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in a listening activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Be sure and involve your child/teen in selecting the book they want to read.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your child’s/teen’s skills in listening, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful and helping them grow in their listening skills.
- Ask key questions to actively see how your child’s/teen’s listening is going. You can ask questions like:
- “I notice that you are having a hard time listening to me as I tell you about my day. What do you think is going on for you?”
- “What are things you might need to do or say to yourself to help yourself listen?”
- Learn about your child’s/teen’s development. Each new age will present different social challenges. Become informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for new and different listening strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for listening. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
When your child/teen does not listen to you or is clearly focusing elsewhere, you might be tempted to scold or nag, but be sure and give them additional chances. Everyone loses their focus sometimes. Seek clarification on what they heard and did not hear, and then review what you said again to help them refocus their attention.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child/teen is working hard to practice their listening skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s/teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. “You communicated your feelings clearly — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t interrupt me when I am talking on the phone, I will give you additional screen time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You waited until I was off the phone before asking your question. I appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child/teen is listening to their sister’s long-winded story, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you not only listened to your sister, you conveyed to her what you understood about what she said. I know that makes her feel cared about. That’s so important.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no interruptions – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps as ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.