Use active listening skills.
Active listening includes reflecting and summarizing. It will help your teen feel heard, understood, and supported. The intention is to understand in a compassionate way. Moderate your reaction, particularly to statements that are triggering. Listen before jumping to advice or evaluate. This is particularly important when the topic might involve health or safety issues (e.g., sex, drinking, smoking, vaping, use of drugs, cheating). This is important even if the conversation is about a friend or classmate’s behavior, your response can limit or facilitate more open communication about challenging decisions and topics. Start with reflecting and accepting stated feelings.
(A quick guide to active listening: https://raisingchildren.net.au/teens/communicating-relationships/communicating/active-listening)
Reflect and Validate Feelings.
When your teen shares a feeling, reflect this feeling back. You do not have to agree with the statement or opinion. You don’t have to agree with the behavior choices, but by acknowledging or summarize what your teen expressed feeling you show that you are trying to understand his or her experience and perspective. This facilitates connection and increases openness of sharing.
When you reflect pause or use “AND” not “BUT” if you are adding more information or your perspective. Reflecting a feeling then saying but…. Is invalidating. (For example, “I hear that you are feeling disappointed about your test grade, BUT you did not study hard” vs “Ah, you are feeling disappointed about your test grade AND I am here to help you figure out what you might do next time”. “You are feeling angry about your friend’s comment, AND it is hard when a friend talks behind your back”)
Don’t Downplay Disappointments or Minimize Feelings.
In a similar way, when your teen expressed feelings be careful not to dismiss the feeling or minimize the feeling. Comments such as, “it is not a big deal”, “why are you so upset about that”, or “you are overreacting” are not helpful to connect to or understand your teen. Even if you see the emotional reaction as ridiculous or disproportionate to the situation, this does not promote open communication. Dismissing concerns can leave your teen feeling frustrated, defensive, or hurt. Challenging the feeling can also shut down sharing (as does contradicting or telling your teen what he or she was feeling). Again, you do not need to agree, and you can still offer boundaries for reactions or behaviors, but first acknowledge and validate the feeling expressed.
Understand and Empathize.
The goal in healthy communication is to better understand the point of view or experience of your teen. Trying to put yourself in his or her shoes can help to increase empathy, which also models how to build closeness in healthy relationships.
Summarize (“what I hear you saying is that….”) and then empathize when your teen shares (“that sounds hard…” “it is understandable that you feel that way). Summarizing also allows you to check in with your teen that you understand him or her (“am I correct in understanding that you feel….”). Accept the emotions, even if they are temporary and the feeling passes (this also usually helps a teen move on faster when experiencing strong negative emotions).
Certainly, there are conversations that are important to teach and advise, set consequences for behaviors, and establish expectations and identify family values. Yet, picking the time and place is important. When your teen is talking about these topics, it is helpful to first hear and understand your teen’s perspective and experience to guide productive discussion.
Ask Clarifying Questions.
Ask Follow-up Questions without Judgment. When you want to clarify what your teen is expressing, try to ask questions out of genuine interest to understand him or her. Avoid judgmental questions that stop sharing. Be aware of loaded questions that are critical (“why can’t you…”). Be careful not to interrupt or interrogate with questions. Use open-ended questions rather than questions that accuse. Try not to jump to problem solving, but ask “how can I best support you in this/right now” to help your teen build independence and confidence in solving future problems.
Tone and Body Language.
Be mindful of tone and body language. Responding slowly and intentionally to emotional statements or triggering comments will help. Yelling, nagging, sighing, guilting and sarcasm do not model or teach kindness and respect. Conversations about difficult topics are always more productive when you are calm and able to respond thoughtfully not reactively. Shaming and insulting damage relationships and can impede healthy communication and relationships. Maintain interest and eye-contact. Put down your phone and reduce other distractions to be able to focus on your teen. Positive body language can show that you care and are interested in what he or she is saying.
Communication demonstrates interest and love. Active listening that reflects feelings helps build connection. Deliberately working to understand your teen’s perspective and creating a safe space for your teen to talk and share feelings will enhance your relationship now and in the future. Communication also means sharing positive experiences, accomplishments, laughter, and specific praise for effort and how your teen handled hard situations.
How to Talk so teens will listen & listen so teens will talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish