All human beings have a psychological need to feel heard and understood. Think of the last time someone ignored your feelings. It probably felt isolating and upsetting. Children and teenagers feel these emotions of rejection the same way when they are not heard, and since they are still developing coping skills, the rejection they feel can hit them especially hard.
The emotions your child feels might not always be rational. You might have no idea why your child is crying over a perceived slight, or why your teenager comes home from school one day in a sour mood over something that seems minor to you. In fact, these strong emotional reactions might frustrate or annoy you. But things that seem small to us can have a big impact in the lives of children, and dismissing their feelings puts you both on a path to a breakdown of communication.
One of the best ways to make someone feel heard is to practice active listening. Active listening involves asking questions and taking on an engaged role in a conversation. Think of this as a more collaborative version of passive listening, in which one person talks and the other person listens. These active listening techniques are simple and effective:
- Make eye contact and really focus on the person speaking. Your body language should reflect that you are interested in what they have to say.
- Listen to understand, rather than to respond. Refrain from offering judgment, or even advice, unless your child asks you to do so.
- Acknowledge why your child feels the way he or she feels. Practice empathy to understand where their emotions are coming from.
- Respond to your child with short summaries of what they have said. For example, “Your new class schedule puts you in a different lunch period from all your friends. It sounds like it’s uncomfortable and lonely to not have anyone to eat lunch with!”
- Ask questions. This could be as simple as, “What did you do when you realized your friends all had a different lunch period this semester?”
- Share a time that you experienced something similar, but be careful not to dominate the conversation. For example, “I remember being the new kid at my middle school after grandma and grandpa moved our family to another state. It was scary not to know anyone at school, but I got up the courage to introduce myself to one new person every day, and things got better faster than I thought!”
Throughout the conversation, let your teenager take the lead. You may learn more about your child than you expect!
If your first attempt at active listening doesn’t elicit a big response from your child, don’t be discouraged. It may take time to build trust with your teenager so that he or she opens up to you. You and your child are both exercising mental “muscles” of listening and communicating that get stronger with practice. The more you practice active listening, the more likely your teen is to trust you and to come to you for guidance.