ONE of the most common complaints about teenagers from parents is that their teens do not communicate with them.
As a therapist, I have met many perplexed and upset parents who feel that their children refuse to share stories about their lives. My general response to them is that teenagers typically prefer to keep to themselves or to confide in their peers. On the other hand, I have also met many teenagers who say that they do not feel heard, neither do they feel safe and comfortable talking to their parents – so what is the point?
These statements made me wonder about the parent-child dynamic, and what is actually occurring on both sides that has led them to a place of non-communication.
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Take The Time To Listen
Parents complain of the lack of communication and teens grumble about their parents not listening to them. Now, this is a vicious cycle, isn’t it? When one party speaks, the other party should listen and provide the assurance that the other’s words are being heard. If not, the person speaking will eventually feel misunderstood, disregarded, and ultimately stop talking, thereby making the other person feel shut out.
The act of listening, understanding, and giving assurance is also known as “active listening”. It is a communication skill that can bring greater connection, cooperation, clarity, and understanding to relationships.
Many of us have heard about active listening, but how exactly does having this skill help in a parent-child relationship? Let’s begin by looking at things from your own perspective, with regard to your personal relationships, whether it is with a partner, a sibling, a friend, or a colleague.
Imagine feeling distressed and upset about a particular situation, and you decide to confide in your partner. While you are talking, your partner is busy multi-tasking and barely looks at you, besides giving you some nods, saying “hmmm” and “oh really”. How would you feel during this one-sided conversation? If you continually receive this feedback, would you approach this person again to share or consult with about events in your life, be it good or bad?
Going back to the question above on how active listening can help cultivate a close parent-child relationship, some of the most important things that will occur is having mutual respect, understanding, and trust between the parent and the child. Children will learn that no matter what their parent is doing, mum or dad will prioritise them and put their full focus on the conversation. The children will thus feel respected and understood by their parents. As time goes by, no matter how big or small a problem is, children will feel comfortable enough to confide in their parents, because they trust they will actively listen to them with an open heart and open mind.
Picking Up On Silent Cues
Active listening encourages the parent to pick up on a lot more of the non-verbal communication: tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and noticing what’s not being said through hesitation in the voice.
It’s all too easy to view communication in terms of facts and ignore the all-important emotional information. It will then come as no surprise when, through active listening, there is more empathy between the parent and the children during challenging or stressful conversations.
Empathy can help to soften the approach and de-escalate a conflictual situation because there is more understanding of feelings and their underlying meanings. When a parent uses active listening, children generally feel more supported and less controlled. It’s hard for parents to resist giving endless advice and lectures, as they feel the huge responsibility of teaching their child. But then again, how do your teens react when the conversation turns one-sided again with all the advice you’re giving? Do they feel better when a parent tells them what to do?
Most times, I wonder if your children want to be told what to do or would they prefer to have a conversation with you about their difficulties. Active listening will slow down the need to give advice and create assumptions, and will instead create a space for your children to feel safe and supported to share their worries. Parents can guide, facilitate, reflect and support without taking over control of their children’s problems. As a result, children who feel respectfully listened to tend to seek their parent’s advice and guidance much more often.
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Parents are often baffled as to why their children will shut down and refuse to speak or interact when they’re clearly troubled. Parents know how much they love their children, and they hope or expect that their children can trust them enough for comfort. Yet, many of the responses from parents, including well-meaning advice or discipline, inadvertently give children the message that their feelings are not valued, cared for, or understood. Those aren’t the messages any parent would want to send to their children.
At the end of the day, if you actively listen to your children, a stronger relationship develops. This is a skill that can be learned and can truly transform how your children talk and listen to you. A new approach to engaging with your children will generally improve the quality of two-way communication and cooperation.
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