Inside voices

Do you find yourself nagging, shouting, ordering or sometimes begging your teenager to do things, and that’s the only way you communicate? Is your outside shouty voice the one you use the most often? When was the last time you had a proper two-way conversation with your children?  Communicating with your teen can often feel like a one-way street but keeping the four-lane highway open for them is just as important now as it was when we were teaching them how to cross the road a few years ago.

Challenges of communicating with your teenager

There are many reasons why teenagers don’t talk to us, and it’s usually nothing to do with how they feel about us as their parents! These include –

  • Because they feel judged
  • Because they think we don’t understand their issues
  • Because it’s embarrassing to share really personal stuff with their parents
  • Because when they want to talk, we are usually asleep or busy
  • Because they don’t want ‘fixing’ (although they know we have their best interests at heart)
  • Because sometimes secrecy is a way of having control over their own lives

Coupled with their angst about sharing are our own preconceptions about how our conversations should work. There are many reasons why we feel like we are bad parents if our children don’t talk to us. It can be:

  • Because we think children should want to tell their parents everything
  • Because we had a wonderful open relationship with our own parent and believe it should be the same with our children
  • Because we want to take their pain away and we can’t do that if we don’t know what’s causing it
  • Because a friend knows more about our teenager’s life through her own daughters or sons than we do
  • Because we want to protect them by knowing all the details of their lives, so if we don’t know anything, how can we make sure nothing bad happens to them?

It basically boils down to how we feel about the role of a parent and how our teenagers feel about the role of a parent.

For example, if we think that being a parent is about being a best friend to our child, then of course, we will feel triggered when they don’t share.

If we think that being a parent is about making life as easy as possible for our child, then it makes sense we are frustrated when a lack of information makes this difficult.

And while it is important to understand our own needs, it’s also vital to understand theirs.

We can only do that by listening without judging or fixing things. Only then will we really understand what’s going on for them and how we can help.

We know ourselves how great and energising it feels when a friend simply listens to us and, in the end, quietly translates our verbal ramblings into sense.

How to listen to teens

It all starts with listening with empathy. Or, to put it another way, listening with your heart as well as your ears. This kind of active listening is a skill that can easily be learned, and when you have built up your active listening muscles, you will be amazed at how much information people will share with you. Here are some tips for practising active listening with your teenager:

  1. Start with the desire to clarify your own understanding – reflecting back on what you have heard is a great way of building skills in this area (a bit like a translator).
  2. Steer away from advice. You don’t have to prove that you are a good parent by having all the answers.
  3. Try not to relate everything back to yourself (“what I would do in this situation is…”). This is about them, not about you.
  4. Ask open-ended questions – “what” questions can be really useful to open up a conversation: What’s important to you? What might the consequences be of that decision etc.
  5. Don’t be afraid of silences. Processing time to think through thoughts and emotions is completely normal and helpful.

By listening with generosity and respect and by working out what might be triggering your reactive response is a brilliant way of starting to improve communication with your teenager and in the process feel like the parent that you want to be.

If you would like to be listened to or to learn more about how to improve your listening skills, come and join our next workshop – The Gentle Art of Listening. Find more information here.