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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 18-year-old teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship while building essential listening skills in your teen.
Your teen’s success depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are communicating. Listening skills can support your teen’s ability to engage in healthy relationships, to focus, and to learn. For example, 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.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are in the transition between childhood and adulthood, learning about who they will become as independent people, their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. This is also known as their self-awareness. They come to better understand themselves through their 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 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 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 fifteen-year-old walking away frustrated while you are talking or your nineteen-year-old daydreaming during their teacher’s instructions and not understanding how to do their research paper, establishing regular ways of practicing listening skills can prepare your teen for family, school, and life success.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to listen effectively and reflectively 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 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 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 Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about listening skills by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your 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 teen
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership, 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 on 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 teen in their ability to listen effectively. Your active listening in this moment will begin modeling the very kinds of skills you are attempting to build. You might start by asking:
- “Do you feel listened to? When and by whom?”
- “How do you know that the person is truly listening to you?”
- “Are there times when someone is not listening to you?”
- “How does that make you feel?”
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
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.
- Fifteen-year-olds may feel sensitive to criticism and be preoccupied with peer interactions. Because of this, they may come to you for support and a listening ear but may also be conflicted as they attempt to assert their independence.
- Sixteen-year-olds may feel more confident in themselves. They may have new important goals outside of school (jobs, driving, dating) and along with them — worries. Your focused listening will matter greatly as they consider new emerging adult roles.
- Seventeen-year-olds may become highly focused on their academic and life goals as they consider the fact that their graduation is coming up and they’ll need to face life after high school. This can be a high stress time. Teens may come to you with great emotional needs and your ability to listen can offer critical support.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are now considered emerging adults. Whether entering college, living on their own, or beginning a job, their lives will be changing in major ways. This is a time for redefining your adult-to-adult relationship. Listening closely to their needs without judgment and offering your assurance that they can do it on their own are some of your most important roles.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see while promoting skills and preventing problems.
- Model specific listening strategies while interacting with your 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 teen will be talking. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating I’m listening?”
- Listen for thought and feeling. In addition to listening to the content of what the person says, also see if you can identify the unspoken thought and feeling behind the content, in other words, the context.
- Teens still seek and need their parents attention to thrive. Why not build a sacred time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your teen has to tell you? Turn your phone off. Set a timer if you need.
- Learn listening strategies together. Teens are keenly interested in figuring out social dilemmas (asking a crush on a date, talking to a teacher about a poor grade, or responding to a “mean girl’s” words). Share a challenge (without a clear solution) at dinnertime and try out one of the following.
- Get curious. Don’t stop asking questions when you get one word answers. Your teen needs to know that you will relentlessly work to get information from them. It is important that your teen knows that they cannot just outwait you. So when you ask, “How was your day?” and your 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 teen asks you how your day was, be sure not to 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.
- Use active listening. 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 weren’t happy this morning? 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 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 teen, you might say, “Sounds like you are excited about this project. Have you thought 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 teen’s comfort with this style of communication.1
As your teen spends more time alone and with their peers, 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 teen to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. Each time your 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 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.
- Model aloud for yourself. “I’m setting a goal for myself to listen at dinner without interrupting.” This helps reintroduce one of the conversation or listening strategies you’ve taught to practice as a family at dinner.
- Recognize effort by noticing. “I noticed how you listened fully to your sister when she was upset. That’s so helpful to her.”
- Play a favorite family game (Headbands, Monopoly, Pictionary, Charades). At the start, set a goal to listen to each other carefully.
- Work on lateral thinking riddles or logic puzzles together that require attentive listening and critical thinking skills.
- Listen to TED Talks together and discuss with your teen what was interesting or challenging about the talk.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your 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 such as: “How did your lesson in literature class go today? Do you understand what you need to do for your long-term research paper?”
- Learn about development. Each new age will present different social challenges. Being informed regularly about what developmental milestones your adolescent is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different listening strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Return to setting a listening goal for dinnertime conversations to reinforce skills. 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 teen does not listen to you or is clearly focusing elsewhere, you might be tempted to scold or nag, but be sure to give them additional chances. Everyone loses their focus sometimes. Seek clarification on what they heard and did not, 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 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 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 listened to your brother’s upset feelings, and I know it meant a lot to him!”
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 listen to your sister without interrupting her, you can have additional screen time after dinner” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I noticed you were actively listening to your sister when she was telling you about her day. Love seeing 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 teens are listening to their sister’s long-winded story, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I notice you listened with focus to your sister’s story. 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 teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your teen makes up for ignoring you by apologizing sincerely recognize that effort. 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 teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for 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.