How to Listen So Teens Will Talk

“Mom, you just don’t understand! You’re not even listening to me!”

Can you hear her stomp up the stairs and slam the door? This scene repeated itself countless times during our younger daughter’s pre-teen years. And she wasn’t wrong—I was hearing her words, but I wasn’t really listening to what she was communicating; I was too focused on what I wanted her to understand. Thankfully, my husband is a rock star and filled in the gaps for us during those tumultuous years, always reminding the two of us how much we love each other and never letting us give up on trying to understand one another.

Over and over again, he brought me back to this foundational truth: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

As parents, there is so much we want to impart to our teens—basic common sense, lessons we learned the hard way, and wisdom we acquired through decades of walking with God. Yet, so often, when we try to share this much-needed wisdom, we are met with blank stares and deaf ears. Why?

Because kids don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. So, how do we show our teens we care about them?

Quality Time = Active Listening

There are many different ways to accomplish this, but one of the best ways is through the investment of active listening. My 12th-grade small group girls recently learned about the 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman), and I asked them what it looks like to spend time with someone without it actually being “Quality Time.”

One girl quickly replied, “Sitting next to each other, but with one or both of you on your phone the whole time.” Great example.

“So,” I asked, “if quality time doesn’t just mean being in close proximity with someone, what does it really look like? What is it about being with someone that makes you feel loved (or doesn’t)?”

After a few minutes, they began to share words like “intentional” and “uninterrupted.” They mentioned that what they do together (the activity) matters less than how they do it. They want to know that the other person is there because they really want to be with them and not just because they have nothing better to do.

When I asked for examples of when they had spent quality time with someone, I noticed something interesting. When they talked about ways they showed love to their parents, they mentioned the activities- “It didn’t really matter to him that we were just throwing the football/making cookies/reading & studying/etc. I think he mostly liked that I was doing it with him.” But when they shared about their parents investing quality time in them, they focused on the conversation instead of the activity.

Our teens want someone to listen.

Digging a little deeper, they confirmed that not all “listening” is the same. As my daughter pointed out to me, someone can hear your words without hearing your heart.

Here are 5 ways to listen so your teens will talk:

Eye contact.

There is an apparent difference between when someone is looking in your eyes and when they are looking around the room or at their phone. When you are interested in something, it holds your attention. Our teens desperately want to know that what they are saying is more important than our latest notification.

Ask questions.

“When someone asks questions about what I’m telling them, it shows they are really listening and engaged. Not only that, it makes me feel like they are actually interested and want to know more!” As the listener, asking questions can help us learn more about the person and situation. It can also help us clarify their emotions.

Sympathize/empathize.

Teens want to know that we understand them, which means, more than anything, they need us to validate their feelings“Wow, I can’t believe your coach did that! That must have made you so mad!” “She really said that? Ugh. I bet that really hurt your feelings!” Remember, there will be a time to share what we know, but first, we need to show how much we care!

Ask and wait.

Do they want a solution to their problem, or do they just want someone to understand? Sometimes, this is evident as you listen, but if not, just ask:“Do you have any idea how you want to respond? Is there anything I can do to help?” If they want your help, they will ask for it. If not, trust that your presence is enough. Those doors will open eventually, maybe when they are not so emotional, because they are learning they can trust you. Sometimes, sharing a story of a time you went through something similar (and had a positive outcome or learned something important) can be helpful; just make sure you are not trying to make the conversation about you. Teens see through stuff like that in a heartbeat. We are the adults; we are there to support and encourage them, not to feed our own ego or make ourselves feel important.

Point them to Jesus.

When our teens open up to us, they are expecting an adult’s response. Once we have done all the things mentioned above—focused attention, asked questions, empathized with them, and asked to help—then we can offer to pray with them. We might share some Scripture that applies to their circumstance or that will encourage them. After all, Jesus is the One who has the answers they are seeking. He is the One whose love and acceptance matter so much more than ours. The sooner they grasp that, the stronger their faith will be. We just get to be a conduit of His love and grace in their lives!

Little things matter.

Finally, listening to our teens in the little, insignificant things is what opens the door to them sharing the big things when the time comes. Learning to be excited about another episode of Gilmore Girls or the play-by-play of the football game paves the way for more significant conversations. If we are faithful with the little things, they learn to trust us with more significant things. And the truth is, we learn so much about them in those little things—what is important to them, what makes them angry, what brings them joy. Knowing those things helps ustruly care about them.

How are your active listening skills? Which of these areas are you strong in, and which require some growth? Who made a difference in your life by taking the time to truly listen to you in your teen years?

Let’s be intentional about showing our teens how much we care by taking the time to really listen.

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