Find it hard to listen to your teen when they vent? Practice attuning to your teen’s needs the next time they come to you with their struggles.
It may come as a surprise that most teens do not feel heard by their parents, especially since most parents think that they’re above average listeners. As Jordan Burnham, a suicide survivor and nationally recognized mental health advocate says, “I know for some parents, the immediate reaction is to give some guidance, give some feedback, but in all honesty, [...] the unfortunate thing I hear over and over again from students is their parents are invalidating their feelings and what they’re going through [with their advice].” This disconnect might leave you wondering, “How can parents be truly supportive and validating in a way that makes their teens feel heard?”
Advice Giving Is Not Listening
Although it may be tempting to help your teen by giving advice (especially when their vents seem to be about trivial things), phrases like “I think it would’ve been better to,” “I think you should,” or “You know what would be great is if” are a characteristic of ineffective listening. Advice giving involves formulating a response in your head of what you think your teen should do, which means you’re not fully present as your teen explains their situation.
If a conversation with your teen has ever ended with them storming out and shouting “You don’t get it,” one of two things may be happening. Either, your teen is having trouble communicating their emotions (a normal marker of teenage development) or it’s possible that your teen doesn’t feel heard by you. Over time, this may lead some teens to stop opening up all together.
It’s important to keep in mind most teens who vent to parents are looking to be heard, not to hear advice. Giving advice may feel like the most natural response, but offering a listening ear can be a more effective means to get your teen to open up to you.
Listen To Understand
Good listening is more than just being an absorbent sponge as previous research suggested. It goes beyond no phones, full attention, open ears and instead is a practice of curiosity. Curious listening means asking questions that get at the situation from your teen’s perspective with the goal of validating them and making them feel heard. This is very different from interrogation-style, objective-driven questioning.
To practice validating your teen’s emotions, begin by non-judgmentally probing the situation with questions or reflective listening strategies that try to get at the facts of the situation from your teen’s perspective. This can show your teen that they have your full attention and that you’re curious about what they have to say. Phrases like “So if I’m hearing this correctly, you feel as if I don’t trust you with big responsibilities,” or, “So you’re saying that your friend really upset you and you don’t know how to trust them again,” allow you to reflect back to your teen what you understand about their situation and for them to fill in any gaps. Remember, the objective is not to correct your teen’s account of the situation or to judge your teen’s responses, but simply to engage in the conversation and make your teen feel like you’re invested in understanding how they experienced something.
After these initial curious questions that try to get at the situation from your teen’s perspective, transition into exploring your teen’s emotions about the situation. “How did that make you feel?” and “I hear you. That sounds tough. Tell me more.” can go a long way in affirming your teen and making them feel heard. Additionally, it can be a great opportunity to practice empathetic listening with a pure objective of just listening.
Let Your Teen Come Up With Their Own Solution
After you’ve understood the situation from their lens, extend compassion and curiosity to your teen. Cultivating a curious mindset is crucial to opening up the floodgates for open communication for you and your teen. For example, a statement like,“Why didn’t you just complete your homework on time? You could’ve avoided this whole debacle with your teacher” can come off as a criticism or judgment. You might consider swapping out for, “So what I’m hearing you say is that you feel pressed for deadlines in English class. That seems very stressful. Do you feel like there’s a way you can reach out to your teacher and potentially ask for more flexible deadlines?” This method is two-fold. One, starting with a reaffirmation through reflective listening (“So what I hear you say” phrase) shows that you validate how they feel about the situation. Next, following up with an open-ended and curious question empowers your teen to come up with their own solution. This also avoids the advice-giving trap. Double win.
The Goal Is Open Communication
The goal of curious listening is to make your teen feel heard and help them see that their feelings towards the situation are valid. If you frequently find yourself saying “They won’t listen to me” or “They won’t take my advice”, remember that listening is a two-way street. Teens may be reluctant to share a problem they’re having if they believe their parent will be unsympathetic or immediately jump in with advice to solve the situation. Curious listening comes down to an acknowledgement of your teen’s feelings for what they are, whatever they are. It’s a tough skill and it takes a lot of practice, but slowly and surely, you can see your teen’s vents as an opportunity for your teen to confide in you.
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