Few techniques have been more effective to me as a mother and a counselor than active listening. It is a deceptively simply technique that has nonetheless managed to work miracles. Essentially, it’s a communication technique that signals to the listener just how much you’re actually hearing what he or she is saying. You subtly parrot back what they’re saying to you as a way of getting them to elaborate when you do active listening.
For one thing, when you do active listening, you’re doing something other than advertising your opinion to your teens. They’re afraid of their parents preaching at them, since they’re so preoccupied with forming their own identities. Teenagers are tired of living under the authority of their parents, since they’ve at least matured to the point where it is easier for them to make their own choices. Teenagers are in an awkward state where their bodies and minds are more mature than those of children, but still not mature enough for adult decisions and adult lifestyles.
Navigating the difficulties of the teen years is often just as difficult from the outside as it is from the inside. Parents were all teenagers once. We remember what it was like. Actually being able to communicate our experiences to teens and helping them through the difficult parts of their lives can make a huge difference, but they need to be able to trust us first and they need to know that we’re actually going to take their feelings seriously.
As adults, we do often have a difficult time taking the dilemmas and problems of teenagers seriously. We went through all of these same problems ourselves and we survived them. They can often seem trivial compared to what we have to cope with today. We have the perspective to be able to look back and decide which parts of our adolescence were really important and which ones weren’t. Teenagers are still in the throes of those dilemmas, and they just aren’t able to do so.
However, it is still your job as the parent to be able to manage the disconnect that the two of you have in terms of your experiences. One of the worst things you can say to your teen in these sorts of situations is to ‘just get over it.’ Teenagers are already burdened by cultural stereotypes that label them as needlessly angst-ridden. They’re used to hearing the unoriginal musings of the adults around them on how their problems aren’t important and they should just get over everything in spite of the fact that they lack the perspective in order to do so.
When you do active listening, you are signalling to your teens that their problems do matter. You are taking their feelings seriously. You are there for them, and you aren’t just paying lip service to the idea that they can always talk to you. Active listening allows parents to communicate many different things to their teens all at the same time, which is why counselors use it and which is why concerned parents can benefit from it just as readily.