If you ever wonder if your teen’s ears have an off switch, you’re not alone. What’s the secret to getting teens to listen? One strategy experts agree on is for parents to improve their own listening skills. Most of us think we’re pretty good listeners, but our body language, choice of words, and tone of voice may send a different message. And when our teens think we don’t listen to them, they’re far less likely to listen to us.
Active listening is listening like you mean it: you’re completely present and open to what the other person is sharing, and they know you care about what they have to say. According to the Center for Parenting Education, “Active listening is a very sophisticated skill that can take years to master. Because you may not have been raised in a home in which this kind of listening was practiced and because very little of it occurs in our society, it can feel like you are learning a second language.” While active listening may be a challenge to master, it’s a real game-changer with teens. Here are five active listening skills you can put into practice today:
1. Make sure you’re “all ears.”
The single most powerful way to upgrade your listening skills is to practice being fully present. Life is busy, fast-paced, and full of distractions, and that makes it tough to tune in to our teens. But nothing says “I’m here for you” like focusing your full attention on your teen. When they’re talking to you, stop multitasking and try to eliminate distractions (put down your phone, silence notifications, or turn off the car radio). Notice if you’re thinking about the past, the future, or your to-do list. If you’re feeling scattered, take a few slow, deep breaths and bring your attention back to the present moment.
2. Pay attention to your body language.
Body language says a lot about how well we’re listening. When your teen is talking, turn toward them and lean in slightly. Smile, nod, and mirror their facial expressions to let them know you empathize. Most teens appreciate eye contact, but if they’re feeling shy or sharing a sensitive subject, they may prefer to be side-by-side. (Lots of parents have great talks with teens while driving.) A pat on the back or a gentle arm squeeze also feels good to teens who like physical affection.
3. Try not to interrupt or give advice (until they ask for it).
Parents have a lot more life experience than kids, and we’d do anything to protect them from the pain of misjudgments and mistakes. It’s common for parents to listen until we think we get the gist and then step in with our own ideas, but that can leave teens feeling unheard. Try to just listen until your teen is done talking, and wait a little longer than usual before you speak up. If they don’t ask for your perspective, you can say, “I have an idea about that if you’re open to hearing it.” With active listening, you don’t have to have all the answers. Think of it like teaching your teen to drive: you can sit beside them and offer support, but they’re the one who steers.
4. Reflect back what you’re hearing.
Another active listening upgrade is to paraphrase what your teen tells you and repeat it back to them. This can feel awkward at first, but it lets teens know you really get what they’re saying – or gives them a chance to clarify. For example, if your teen says, “I hate Olivia! She told everybody I got a C on the test and I feel so stupid,” you can reflect back: “You must feel embarrassed and angry that she shared information you wanted to keep private. It’s hard when a friend lets you down like that.”
5. Ask the right kind of questions.
Make sure your questions are non-judgmental and clarifying. Nothing shuts down a conversation faster than a question that sounds like criticism: What were you thinking?! Clarifying questions seek a better understanding of the message your teen wants to get across. You might ask them to clarify facts about what happened or say more about how they feel. By avoiding the feeling of judgment, clarifying questions give teens an opportunity to self-reflect, see the situation in a new light, and think about possible next steps. Clarifying questions gently guide teens toward deeper understanding and self-awareness while keeping their sense of autonomy intact.
Practicing these five skills lets your teen know that you care about them, respect them, and value what they have to say, so they’re more likely to listen when it’s your turn to talk. And best of all, active listening will deepen your teen’s trust in you, ensuring that you’re the one they turn to when they need a listening ear or a helping hand.