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David Baxter PhD

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How To Communicate With Your Teen Through Active Listening
by Dr. Tali Shenfield, Child Psychology and Parenting Blog
October 19, 2017

Adolescence radically reshapes the parent-child dynamic, and in doing so, profoundly changes the way in which parents and children communicate. A child who was once open may become sullen or combative when asked to share her feelings; a child who was formerly outgoing may become quiet and withdrawn; a once easy-going youngster may stubbornly insist that she is ?fine? while obviously putting herself under immense pressure socially and academically. Parents often find themselves bewildered, wondering why their child will seemingly do almost anything ? lie, shout, go silent, or even become violent ? to avoid seeking their support. Frequently they end up feeling as lost as their child, wondering bemusedly: ?Doesn?t she know that I love her and just want the best for her??

If you find yourself in such a situation, it?s vitally important to not simply blame your child ? but nor should you accept this lack of communication as ?normal? teenage behaviour. Instead, you should take a step back and analyze the situation: More often than not, the problem lies with the teen feeling ?shut down? by the style of advice or discipline she is receiving from her parents, and only by understanding your own role in this process of invalidation can you reopen the lines of communication.

It?s also important to remember that teenagers are going through a period of intense adjustment, and with the uncertainly brought on by all these changes comes enhanced sensitivity. Teens have a deep need to feel truly ?heard?, valued, and understood, and too often parents talk ?over? them without pausing to practice what is known as ?active listening?. As children usually listen to their parents only inasmuch as they feel listened to themselves, neglecting to practice active listening not only causes poor communication, it often undermines parental authority as well.

What Is Active Listening?
In order to understand the essence of active listening, it is important to first reflect on your own needs within relationships: What helps you to feel fully understood and empathized with when you?re seeking support from a friend, spouse, or family member? Conversely, what makes you feel ignored, shut down, or belittled?

There has probably been someone in your life ? for instance, an elderly relative ? who you knew you could always turn to when in need; someone who made you feel accepted and understood as she ?just listened? without judgement and without frequently interrupting to assert her own opinions. She probably avoided using platitudes like ?Think of the bright side,? or ?It could always be worse.? While she offered guidance, you never got the sense that she was simply waiting for the chance to jump in and showcase her superior knowledge and life experience. The result was that you always ended conversations with this individual feeling calmer, more centered, and less alone.

Contrast this experience with that of having an unhelpful boss or co-worker, one who consistently brushed off your concerns, asserted that she knew best any time you posited a potential solution to a problem, and seemed to use most of the dialogue you engaged in as an opportunity to subtly criticize you. If you?ve ever dealt with someone who communicated in such a way, you probably came away from each exchange feeling hurt, defensive, and frustrated. Eventually, you likely did all you could to work alone, without involving this individual?it was just easier that way.

When it comes to feeling understood, your teen?s needs are little different from your own. She needs someone who resists the temptation to interject, who doesn?t assume that he or she ?knows best? or knows more about her own mind than she does ? in short, she needs an active listener. An active listener is engaged and caring, willing to compromise, and understands how to empathize with the person speaking even when he or she doesn?t agree with that person?s behaviour. Unlike a passive listener, he or she provides feedback where appropriate (both verbally and in the form of attentive body language), validates the speaker?s feelings as being comprehensible and acceptable, and non-judgmentally provides information if the speaker happens to be seeking it.

Active Listening Tips
While active listening can be a difficult skill to learn in any relationship, it?s particularly challenging when one party is meant to occupy the role of authority figure. Parents need to realize that engaging in active listening does not mean never giving teens much-needed advice or discipline ? it simply means ensuring that the teen feels heard and understood during the process.

Some active listening strategies applicable to parent-child relationships include:

  • Ask thoughtful questions. Take the time to dig deeper into why your teen feels the way she does or behaves the way she does by asking insightful, open-ended questions (questions which allow for a variety of responses rather than implying there is one ?correct? response). This will not only help you to get to know your teen better, it will help her learn to analyze her own behaviour and opinions and therefore become more mindful. Like adults, teens usually want to self-moderate and self-discipline, but they struggle with heightened impulse control issues and a lack of perspective, problems which can often be rectified by practising thoughtful consideration.
  • Put empathy first. Try to see issues from your teen?s point of view rather than immediately assessing them from an adult perspective. Never dismiss your teen?s feelings as ?wrong,? juvenile, or ridiculous; instead, think back to your own struggles and confusion as an adolescent and do your best to really feel what she is feeling.

    Note that this is especially important if your teen has done something you don?t agree with; for example, if after your teen has been caught shoplifting, you listen with compassion and ask why she engaged in such behaviour, you may discover that she did so in an attempt to ?fit in? and avoid being bullied. From there, you can devise a solution to the root problem and improve your teen?s quality of life rather than simply punishing her.
  • Practice the use of attentive body language. Parents, like teens, are often distracted?by the demands of work, by cell phones and the internet, by chores, etc. It?s important to moderate this behaviour when conversing with your teen: Take the time to make eye contact and know when to give an affirming nod, encouraging smile, or look of understanding concern. By doing so, you can communicate in an active, loving way while also letting your teen do the talking. Researchers estimate that up to 92% of human communication is nonverbal, so one should never underestimate the impact these small gestures can have.
  • Learn to effectively ?mirror? your teen?s statements. Rather than following up your teen?s comments with phrases like, ?I think you should?? practice paraphrasing your teen instead, then ask for confirmation or clarification as needed. Make sure that the message you are taking away from the conversation is the same one your teen is trying to convey rather than assuming you ?know? what he or she is thinking and feeling. Likewise, you should avoid taking ownership of your child?s problems to the point where you feel compelled to intervene and ?fix? them.
  • Pay attention to how your child is responding. Just like your own use of body language can convey a great deal of information to your child, your child?s nonverbal communication can provide you with insight into how she feels the conversation is progressing. Your child?s body language should be relaxed, open, and attentive (within reason; it?s important not to force your child?s exclusive focus). If the conversation ends with a smile and a hug, odds are good that your teen feels supported and relieved.

Though it takes practice to perfect the art of active listening, many parents report that it?s well worth the effort: Active listening reduces misunderstandings, improves parent-child trust, and encourages the honest sharing of thoughts and feelings. The end result is that your teen will feel more supported and less controlled; she will also be more confident and self-aware and therefore better able to resist the demands of peer pressure. She will know that no matter what happens, she has a listener for life in the form of her parents.
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