When your baby first learns to talk, you listen out eagerly for every new word. But by the time your kid becomes a teenager, maybe you’ve gotten used to doing a lot of the talking, and a lot less listening!
I see this a lot in families.
For instance, not long ago, I was doing some training with a parent whose 15-year-old had gotten into some serious trouble at school. Because we’d just been learning about methods for dealing with emotional teens that very same day, this parent had just learned how to stop and listen, without engaging emotionally.
So they put it to the test on the drive home with the teenager. Instead of getting into an argument or being 'pulled into' the content of what was being said and giving up in exhaustion, this situation turned out very differently. The parent came back and said to us the next day how amazingly well this technique had worked. It got to the point where the teenager was saying, “Why are you talking like that?”
In the end they were able to have a conversation where both parent and teen had a chance to talk and listen and be heard. And the parent was still able to let the child know that there would be a consequence, but they had a completely different kind of interaction (after a year or more of constant arguing). Because both stayed calm, it was the first time they could really hear each other!
Conversations need to gradually change from 'parent-and-child' style to 'one-adult-to-another', but this can be tricky for a number of reasons:
- Sometimes your teenager’s emotions can be a little out of control and it’s hard to have a calm conversation.
- Sometimes your teenager’s confidence and ability to communicate has improved, but you’re still wanting to be their ‘spokesperson’.
- Sometimes your teenager has strong opinions of their own, and their opinions are different from yours.
- Sometimes, it’s hard for you to shift gears. When a child is little, it’s your job to teach them, and sometimes we see parents still in that teaching and training mode, even when their teenager doesn’t need them to be like that all the time.
ARE YOU BEING A VENTRILOQUIST?
Let’s look at one of the challenges for some parents and teenagers when it comes to parents learning to listen. This is when the parent has been used to the child being a bit shy or unsure of themselves when they were little, and the parent doesn’t realise the child has grown up, so the parent speaks on their behalf. We’ve all seen this one in action: Another person asks the teenager a question about what they’re interested in at school or what kind of music or sport they like, and mum or dad just answers, as if the teen weren’t even there or can’t answer the question for themselves.
In a school situation, I’ve seen this happen when a student is in a play or they're given a speech or do a debating course and when the parent comes to see them perform, they can’t believe their eyes and ears. It's the first time they’ve seen their kid in a different light. They’re like, “I didn't even know my child could do that!” It’s funny, because you’d think the parent would be the one to notice their child changing because they’re with them every day. But maybe it’s because the change has been so gradual, it’s happened without them being aware of it.
It’s genuinely difficult for the parent in this situation to see their child, who used to need them around to speak for them, has now changed and grown. Their teenager is becoming a young adult who’s more confident and capable, and more than able to hold an intelligent conversation when their parents aren’t around. They may even be getting to the point where having dad or mum take over all the time is really getting on their nerves, but they don’t know how to bring it up without causing an argument or hurting their parent’s feelings.
Of course, in some situations the teenager may be comfortable with their parent speaking for them – almost too comfortable. It could be a safety net for them that prevents them from developing the skills to speak up for themselves.
So in one case you’ve got the parent unable to make a transition and in another, it’s the teenager themselves. Maybe they’re not confident, or maybe they don’t want to break the parents’ illusion that they’re always a nice, quiet, shy co-operative kid and they may not want to share with the parents that they have a difference of opinion!
And so we come to another situation where parent-teenager conversations can be difficult. Teenagers are being exposed to many different influences and ideas. It’s hard to adjust to the fact that as a parent, you don’t have the same monopoly you used to have on being the advice-giver and source of wisdom. That’s not to say your child doesn’t still look up to you and listen to you. But you have to also make room for them to explore their own ideas about who they are and what they believe.
As kids change into teenagers and young adults, they need to learn to be able to express themselves to their parents and to other adults. And parents need to understand that kids may have something to say.
GET BACK INTO THE DRIVER’S SEAT
We know that teenagers are under stress, they’ve got hormones rushing around, and they often haven’t got enough life experience to see things in perspective.
So just imagine your teenager comes in all discombobulated, whether it's directed at you or not. They’re crying or they’re yelling, or maybe a bit of both – it’s so easy for us as parents to get caught up in all the drama. The problem is that the natural inclination for the parent is to want to solve the problem, or discipline the child, or explain to the child what it is we think they need to know or do. So the parent talks. And then the teen becomes more emotional or louder, and on top of that they’re saying to the parent things like “You’re not listening to me! You never listen!”
Instead of things calming down, they escalate. But there IS a way to do what’s called reflective listening, and this is one of the skills parents learn when they do Teen Triple P. (Bonus: It can help people in all kinds of situations, including arguments with their partner.) When the parent learns to use this skill, what often happens is the opposite of what they expect: they actually feel more in control of the situation, in their role as a loving and engaged parent.
I’ve met plenty of parents like the one I was talking about earlier, who are used to getting into arguments with their teenager. Some of them have been very sceptical. They don’t believe there’s a method that will help them successfully deal with 'the emotional teen'. But then they go home and try what they learned and they come back the next week and say, “I can't believe what happened. I can’t believe it worked.”
LISTEN UP – HERE’S THE MESSAGE IN A NUTSHELL
Rather than the old way you might be used to, (where it’s all about you as a parent talking), now you’re actually teaching them the other side of communication, by listening.
- First, you need to find out what your teen is thinking about and initiate conversations that are of interest to them.
- You need to evaluate whether your ideas about them, and what they’re capable of, have kept pace with reality.
- You need to allow for some differences of opinion.
- And if you’re getting into a lot of arguments, you may need to learn some new ways to keep calm and use reflective listening to engage without escalating. (It may be also worth getting some help
practicingthose skills so you can use them even in emotionally intense situations).
All of these things require co-operative listening skills for both parent and teen.
In other words, opening your ears can open the door to a better relationship.