Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship while building essential listening skills in your teens.
Your teen’s success depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are telling them. Listening skills can support your teen’s ability to engage in healthy relationships with friends, relatives, and teachers, and aid their focus and ability to learn at school. For example, we know 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 an independent person, 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, we all face challenges when it comes to listening. The average person listens with only 25% efficiency.1 With screens occupying several hours of our teen’s day, their opportunity to interact with others in-person and exercise listening skills may be less than with previous generations. And, listening skills require an individual to cultivate a number of other important skills like impulse control, focused attention, empathy, and nonverbal and verbal communication.
The key to many parenting 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.
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 we have the competence to manage our relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing for a parent and teen with the motivation to engage and work hard to go along with it.
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 best done when you and your 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 focus 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;
- 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 just 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
As parents, it’s easy to forget that teens are still learning how to be in healthy relationships and that includes learning how to listen effectively. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their teen is going through. Here are some examples:
- 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.
- 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. So why not build a sacred time into your routine when you be fully present to listen to what your teen has to tell you? Turn your phone off. Set a timer if you need.
As our teens spend 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.
- Learning listening strategies together. Ages 15-19 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 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.
- 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.
- Paraphrasing. 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…”/p>
- Seeking clarification. Try out seeking clarification. Particularly if you are listening with the intent to learn 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?”/p>
- 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.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Listening Skills for Healthy Relationships
Our daily conversations can be opportunities for your teen to practice new vital skills if we seize those chances. With practice, your emerging adult will improve over time as if you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen works hard to manage their feelings, words, and choices constructively.
- 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. Frequently, we offer feedback on what our teens are not doing right, but how often do we recognize when they are working on their behaviors? “I notice 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. If you anticipate challenges, use a talking stick so that only the one holding the stick can speak at a time.
- 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’ve taught your teen how to meet their listening challenges with skill and persistence and you are allowing them to practice it so they can learn how to listen effectively without your teaching. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful, 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 differing social challenges. So, becoming 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 emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions 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 teens do not listen, give them another chance. We all lose our focus. 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
Though adults tend to forget, your attention is still your teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished in family life. But, if your teen is working hard to listen to family members, it will be worth your while to recognize it. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to your teen’s motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- 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 in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on teens. When you remove the money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. Your attention and recognition add to their feelings of competence. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “you listened to your brother’s upset feelings, and I know it meant a lot to him!” – can promote more of the same.
Engaging in these fives 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.