Using Active Listening When Adolescents Speak

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

After getting home from work, a mother asks her teenage daughter how her day went. Her daughter mumbles about the day going fine. The mother follows-up with a couple of more questions about homework and gets some more vague answers. Since it has been a long day and communication with her daughter doesn’t seem to be happening, the mother goes on with the rest of the evening and preparing dinner for the family.

Later that night as the mother is watching her favorite TV show and unwinding from an exhausting day, her daughter starts to talk about an issue that has been bothering her. She and her best friend both like the same boy and it is creating problems between them. While this is just the type of information the mother was trying to encourage from her daughter earlier, it is hard to devote much attention to it by that point in the night.

A couple of weeks later, the mother and daughter get into an argument where the daughter claims that her mother never listens to her while the mother feels she is always asking the daughter to talk and she never wants to. This scenario plays out among many parents and their teenagers.

The fact is that active listening is a difficult thing to do. This is particularly true for parents of adolescents. Throughout the child’s life, a parent’s role is to educate the child and correct their behaviors. For young children this is typically done in a very direct manner by telling them what to do and how to respond to situations. As children turn into teenagers, it is harder for parents to switch and become more active listeners.

Active listening means taking the time to devote full attention to what is being said and not simply waiting for a pause in the conversation to tell the teen what should be done. Active listening requires parents to put themselves into their teenagers’ point of view. It is also best to not offer advice or pass judgment when actively listening.

A couple of recommendations to make active listening more effective is to use subtle verbal encouragement for the teen to continue such as saying “uh-huh”, “you don’t say”, and “what happened next?” In addition, it can help to summarize what the teen has just said. Both of these active listening techniques can encourage adolescents to talk more in-depth about what is on their mind.

A few caveats about active listening with teenagers. Rarely will teens want to talk when it is most convenient for parents. Usually, it will be at the most inopportune time. If parents tell their teens that now is not a good time but that they would like to talk about it later, it is likely that conversation will never take place. Take the time to listen when the window of opportunity opens.

While having open communication with teenagers can be challenging, it can be well worth the effort. Teenagers who feel that their parents will take the time to listen to them and not pass immediate judgment are more likely to come to their parents when serious issues arise. This will only happen if the time has been spent encouraging open communication through active listening. Take a moment at the beginning of this year and resolve to be a more active listener.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in January 2014.

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