Are you listening to your teenager? I mean really, really listening? Do you set everything down, look them in the eyes and try to understand what they’re telling you?
Therapy does many things for a teenager. One of the benefits is something so simple that you can do it yourself if you will decide to do so.
When a teenager comes in here to work with me on something that is bothering them, they are completely assured I am listening. I don’t have my phone out. I don’t have my computer open. I’m not cleaning. I’m not cooking. There is no music playing. I’m not sitting in the other room. The TV isn’t on. I’m not staring out the window. I’m not examining my fingernails or picking at my clothes. I am sitting 4-5 feet from them, looking at their face, mirroring their body language and REALLY listening. I am reflecting back to them a sound or a word here and there that says, “I hear you.” I say, “Tell me more.” I say, “No way!” I say, “That must have sucked!” I match their emotional tone with mine. I exaggerate emotional tone when it’s right to do so. If they tell a sad story but appear indifferent, I show the sadness. This is how they know I’m listening.
We do many, many other things in counseling that help an adolescent grow and survive life’s tough stuff. These are not things you would naturally know to do. These are things I have spent years practicing, read thousands of pages to learn, spent hundreds of hours in supervision with someone more experienced than me, and watched countless hours of video tape of myself doing therapy with clients. These are skills that have taken immense practice just as you have seasoned your own professional abilities with tons of experience and learning.
What you can do without all that training is listen well. Taking the time to do that gives them an amazing amount of dignity. Listening does not mean passing judgment on what they’re saying. I too have opinions about what they’re sharing. However, knowing when you have earned the right to share those opinions is the art of tact. Be tactful with your teenager. You don’t get a free pass on this just because you’re the parent. You do have a huge advantage over the rest of the world though. Your advantage is that your adolescent wants to have YOU truly listen to him or her. They might not come out and tell you this, but to have their parent hear them is in the heart of every teen who has ever sat across from me.
Mom or Dad, whichever of you is reading this, please take the time to listen to your kid. You will show them how much you care. Set your stuff down. Leave your to do list somewhere else. Let go of your need to talk. Don’t be a half-listener who is planning what to say at the slightest gap in conversation while your teen is talking. That’s bad listening. Just sit and absorb what they have to say.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT