Yes, it is possible!
by Susie Walton
“The tragic, outstanding difficulty between teens and adults is the absence of communication. These doors can be kept open during adolescence. Much of it depends upon our ability to respect the child, even when we disagree with him.” Rudolph Dreikurs from Children: The Challenge
How many of you immediately turned to this article in hopes of finding the cure for your teenager’s “parent deafness” (as in “my kids won’t listen to anything I say…”)? Well, not to disappoint you, but if you want your child to listen to you, you have to listen to them! This might not be what you expected, but it’s actually good news, because it gives you at least a little bit of control. Even though you can’t make your teen do anything, you can make them feel heard, and in return they will begin to listen to you!
Listening is a two-way street, and I believe it is becoming a lost art. Many parents believe that they listen, but if they aren’t getting the response they want from their kids, I recommend that those parents examine their own listening skills.
The other day, a friend of mine told me she had asked her two teens if they had noticed any difference in how they were being raised (democratic style of parenting) versus many of their peers. Her kids agreed the main difference was that they felt their point of view mattered. They knew that they didn’t always get what they wanted, but they felt heard and that their opinion had value. These two teens feel their mother listens to them, and as a result, they listen to their mother. So, what exactly was this parent doing differently with her teens? She, and other democratic parents use the following tools.
So often, as parents, as we have helpful ideas or information to share with our teens, but the tone of our communication can make it or break it. If you come from a place of judgment, or with an agenda, your kids will either not listen, give you attitude or give you the “look” (you know the look I mean). Your tone says it all. Did you know that when communicating, the words you use have only a 15% impact? The other 85% is tone and bodty language. Back before I took any parenting courses, my tone could get pretty out of control. In fact, my sons nicknamed me “Brubaker” after the prison warden in that ‘80s movie. Gee, I wonder why it seemed like no one ever listened! It seems like I spent much of my time nagging them to do things, and they spent a lot of the time ignoring what I had to say. So this takes us to the next tool…
It is very important to make sure the timing is right before you try to engage in a meaningful conversation. If you or your teen is still emotionally charged, the listening will not be there. When disciplining, it’s best to say as little as possible, or perhaps nothing at all, until you are coming from a calmer place. Example: When he was young, one of my sons got picked up for shoplifting. I was so upset by it that after I picked him up and we got in the car, I didn’t say a word. I knew whatever was going to come out of my mouth would be neither empathetic nor kind. So I just stayed quiet. He kept asking me why I wouldn’t say anything. All I said was that I was too disappointed to speak at that time. He was apologizing, and actually started explaining why he did it and how he hadn’t meany any harm. It was amazing how much came out of him as a result of my being quiet. There is a great saying: Nagging makes it your problem… silence makes it theirs!
Because the store had kept him for quite a long time, it was late by the time we got home, so we sat down and got some food out and had an amazing heart-to-heart coversation. We both listened and both felt heard. It was incredible and, yes, there were consequences for his actions, but it did nothing to damage our relationship. In fact, it made our relationship even stronger.
3. Be curious.
When asking a question, come from a place of curiosity. If not, it’s best to remove yourself from the situation until you can be more detached. Your kids know when you’re really interested, or if you are trying to bust them or guilt them—it just doesn’t work!
It’s pretty amazing to find out how they think. Researchers will tell you that teens often times actually live in a different part of the brain than we do. They tend to be risk-takers at this age, so get curious. In fact, here’s an exercise to do with your teen: Each of you write down the then most important things for you at this stage of life. There’s a good chance you will find you only have few things in common. This will help you see that the problem may not be so much that your teen isn’t listening, but that they just don’t have the same priorities as you do. The cool thing about this exercise is that you’ll have a couple of things in common. You can do these things together and that will bring you closer, thus giving you a better chance your teen will listen to you.
4. Agree to disagree.
It’s best to have this conversation with your teen: There will be times when you won’t agree, so you will agree to disagree. This gives you a chance for more open communication, and more listening from both parent and teen.
5. Choose to be close, rather than right.
I had four teen-aged sons at the same time and I can tell there were many times when I could have chosen to be right rather than close. But. That wouldn’t have gotten me much other than a bunch of angry uncooperative sons. I’m not saying to give in. I’m saying that you shouldn’t make everything a battle. Example: It was a house rule that my sons were supposed to clean up after dinner. I had a choice: nag them to death to get it done (being right) or make it fun (being close). On many a night, I would toss them the dishes form the dish washer and would put them away, or vice versa. It was fun and easy and it got the job done a whole lot quicker and less stressfully. It was also a great time to share things with them and, guess what? They would listen!
6. Seek to understand before being understood.
If you can take the time to listen to your teen’s point of view with the intention of wanting to understand how they are feeling about something, there’s a better chance they’ll listen to your point of view. The key ingredient here is your desire to understand, not to make them do something you think they should do. Example: A couple I know sent their two daughters to very prestigious and expensive schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade. When the second daughter, Debby, was a senior, she informed her parents that she wanted to go to a community college instead of a four-year university, even though she had been accepted to some very good schools.
At first, her dad went ballistic. He hadn’t spent all that money on her education all those years so she could go to a community college. After he calmed down, as he noticed it wasn’t helping matters, he sought to understand. The daughter explained that she didn’t feel she was ready to go away. She would be graduating from college when she was still 17 (October birthday). So she wanted to go to the community college and get all her undergrad requirements handled, and then go off to UCLA to finish her degree. She still planned on finishing in four years. Once he understood her reason and he was more at peace with her decision, she listened to his thoughts. The result: Debby went to community college for the two years and graduated with a degree from UCLA two years after that.
7. When your teen has something to say, stop what you’re doing and listen.
How often in our busy lives have we told our kids to wait a minute or that we’re too busy to listen right now? But we get upset when they don’t stop and listen to us when we want them to. In general, teens are not wanting to share a lot of what’s going on with their lives, and that’s normal. So, when they want to talk, stop and listen. It doesn’t matter how busy you are. You might miss a valuable opportunity to get insight into what they’re thinking. Example: After going through a divorce from my son’s father, I would ask my oldest son how he was doing. He would always say that he was okay, and that was about it (he isn’t a big talker). Then, late one night, four years after the divorce, I was saying good night to him as I was walking out to his room. He said, “Hey Mom.” Now, if I hadn’t learned the importance of listening even at inconvenient times (it was 11 pm and I was exhausted), I would have missed the opportunity to hear how different it had been for him since the divorce. He shared how much he missed the big family dinners we used to have.
Parents, when it comes to teens, never be too busy to listen. They have a lot on their plates and they need a healthy adult they can share with. At the same time, be willing to listen without fixing. More than 1,000 teens were asked who they would like to go to when they have an issue to deal with. Almost every one of them answered that they’d want to talk to a parent. When asked who they actually go to, almost every teen answered anybody but their parent. When asked why, they stated that if they went to their parent they would be lectured, yelled at, grounded, or that their parent wouldn’t sleep for the next three months. So, on one hand they want to speak to us, but history has shown them that we at times aren’t very good at listening to them without a reaction.
So be ready to listen and they will listen to you. The teen years come and go very quickly. This is a chance to enjoy them while they’re still around. Let your teen know you care about that they have to say. Let them know you may be a bit clumsy when learning to listen without judgment and more from a place of curiosity. Keep loving them. Spend a few moments thinking back to when you were a teen and how you would have wanted your parents to listen to you. Practice that with your teens and see how it goes. Most importantly, tell them you love them every single day.