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How to Actually Listen to Your Teen

Embark Behavioral Health
September 10, 2021

School, friends, social media, even wanting something new to wear from a particular brand of clothes – no matter how huge or trivial the topic, the conversations you have with your teen are vital opportunities to build an emotional connection. 

To make sure that your teen knows you are hearing them, try using these two strategies while being an active listener: 

  1. Reflection: Paraphrase what they’ve said without an agenda — don’t parrot. 
  1. Empathy: Your teen is telling you something about their emotional state; understand their emotions based on what they’ve said. 

“Set the notion of gathering all the details aside. If you’re able to paraphrase back without agenda, you can make the shift to relational connection through empathizing, paraphrasing, and reflection,” says Chief Clinical Officer for Embark Behavioral Health, Rob Gent, M.A., LPC. 

5 Tips to Connect with Your Teen When They’re Upset 

These conversations can be challenging, especially if your teen doesn’t quite know how to or doesn’t want to communicate what they’re feeling or experiencing. If your teen is upset at a point during the conversation, take a deep breath, and follow these practical tips: 

  1. Try to dislodge them out of the trance of their current emotion by being playful. Use good-natured humor (not sarcasm or mockery) and laughter to break them out of a feeling of frustration. 
  1. Resist the urge to pry information from them. If they’re reluctant to open up, it’s natural to start asking questions to get them to talk. However, you don’t want to barrage them with questions or make them feel like they’re being interrogated. 
  1. Instead, get them to start opening up and communicating by displaying curiosity. You can get them to share more by being curious about unrelated things, such as saying, “I’m curious — how do you feel about the outing we have planned tomorrow?” 
  1. Empathetically address the emotional experience. Using first-person language, explain how they’re feeling, such as stating, “If I am you, frustration feels like _______.” In doing this, you’ll make them feel like they’re not alone in what they’re experiencing and feeling. 
  1. Accept it, don’t try to change it. As a parent, it’s natural to want to fix things as quickly as possible, but by not accepting your teen isn’t ready to fully open up, jumping to solutions without fully understanding the issue can perpetuate it and make it worse. 

As parents, sometimes we don’t or can’t recognize the indicators of when a child moves into dysregulation, which is when they’re spinning out emotionally. Pay attention to these indicators of dysregulation’s opposite, co-regulation, which mean they haven’t shut down: 

  • Eye contact 
  • Sharing space 
  • Open to empathy 
  • Open to touch 

If your child won’t make eye contact, pulls away from touch, distances themself, and/or contests empathetic statements, they’re out of that safe zone and have become dysregulated. 

How to Start Conversations and Gain A Deeper Understanding 

When we’re focused on getting answers, we often ask questions, but that can start to feel like an interrogation. There’s a better technique that allows you to open the lines of communication without directly questioning your teen, ensuring they’ll be more open to responding honestly.  

Get them to start talking by using “I noticed” statements. Examples include: 

  • Isolation: “I noticed you haven’t hung out with Taylor in a while.” 
  • Change in appearance: “I noticed that you’re doing your hair differently. Is there a new friend at school?” 
  • Slipping grades: “I noticed that you seem frustrated when you’re doing your science homework. Is there a topic you need help with?” 
  • Change in mood: “I noticed that you’ve had more energy lately.” 

In a meaningful and unobtrusive way, “I noticed” statements communicate to them that you’re paying attention and care about them. 

Gent suggests that parents focus on this question: “What is the goal of my curiosity and desire to connect?” He adds, “I think most of us, as parents, we miss that. We think that the solution is in getting the details. That’s not the answer. The solution is sharing the emotion.” 

Pointers for Practicing Active Listening 

It’s easy to focus on what you want to say or what you want to get out of the conversation, but when we do that, we can miss important details and cues. The ability to engage in active listening will help you better understand your teen and encourage them to express their feelings. 

Good listening takes a willingness for empathic connection just as much as it requires an open mind and a non-judgmental perspective. Make sure you avoid multitasking to give your full attention, face your teen with welcoming body language and make eye contact in a relaxed, uncritical manner. Giving your undivided attention will help you listen attentively to paraphrase what is said and withhold judgment and advice. 

To practice active listening, Gent recommends following these four additional steps: 

  1. Predict in advance. Think two steps ahead before you talk with your teen. First, think about what they’re currently feeling or have been through recently so you’re prepared and can remain focused. Doing this also allows you to plant seeds, saying things like, “If I didn’t get accepted on the team, I would feel disappointed, frustrated, and maybe even aggravated. I would feel like my self-esteem is low.” 
  1. Empathize without agenda. Think about what your child is going through and their point of view. What do you think their emotions are? If you are them, what is that experience like? “You have to free yourself up from agenda, actually pouring yourself into it and offering empathy without judgment,” advises Gent. 
  1. Read between the emotions together. Teens may not know how to express what they’re feeling, so ask yourself what your child is emotionally telling you, not what they’re cognitively or verbally telling you. “Often, teens don’t cognitively know what they’re going through — they need your help to emotionally explore it. We call this ‘co-regulation of narrative,’” explains Gent. Together, you can define their emotions. 
  1. Address their emotional and physical needs. It’s easy to want to start problem-solving and jump to what your child might want in a given situation (such as a night of pizza, binge-watching, and ice cream after getting rejected from the team in the example above), but it’s essential to focus on their actual needs. 

Gent sums up the four-step process: “Attunement is putting empathy into action.” 

What to Consider When You React and Respond to Your Teen 

It’s just as vital that you pay attention to how you react and respond during the conversation, especially if you start to feel frustrated. Gent offers two helpful tips for maintaining the right mindset to have a productive dialogue: 

  1. Check your expectations. Unmet expectations can breed frustration. It’s normal to feel frustrated if your child is flippant, not paying attention, or is shutting down, but it’s important to recognize when you’re absorbed in your own distress. When your level of frustration rises, it’s a sign that you need to check your expectations and better align them with what your teen is capable of doing in that moment and work from there. 
  1. Don’t double down on details. Parents may focus on pushing for more and more information when they feel like they’re not getting an emotional connection from their teens. So, we bombard them with questions, prying them to tell us everything instead of addressing the child’s emotional distress. “Doubling down on details is a big one for most parents because that’s how we reassure ourselves that there is a relationship and there is some control,” states Gent. 

When you’re reacting and responding, resist the urge to focus on your expectations or question your teen to keep the conversation going. Instead, using playfulness, curiosity, listening skills, and empathy will allow you to understand the issue at hand better.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.