Hearing, not listening to our teens in this already complex relationship

Listening vs hearing 

When it comes to parenting our adolescent children, it is widely accepted that effective communication is key. The foundation of this is listening. When as parents/carers we do not fully listen, the substance of our young people’s message can be misinterpreted and consequently they can become irritable and feel undervalued and unimportant.

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Hearing is passive, involuntary and effortless, requiring the use of our ears to perceive sound. On the other hand, listening requires a conscious effort, with focus and concentration involving both mind (to process the meaning of the words) and body (the ears). 

There are several reasons why we might hear rather than listen. One example is when preparing a response. Some people may prefer talking over listening, therefore in some conversations, are too busy making a defence or preparing that response that we don’t listen to what is being communicated. Another example is being distracted. Our “thought speed” is greater than our “listening speed.” And some of us may believe that because we are hearing the words being uttered that this is sufficient. Particularly in today’s technological society, our attention is easily diverted. We can be multi-tasking physically (on our phone) or mentally (by allowing the mind to wander).

Whilst we might then hear what is being said, we are not truly listening. By truly listening, and asking open-ended questions such as, “what is that like for you?” or, “how does that make you feel?” we can help the speaker feel we understand, so helping build connections and long-lasting relationships.  

A good example of this might be the newly dating 16-year old daughter who is clearly desperate to share her excitement with her mum, away from their noisy house and suggests they “go out for coffee”.  Her distracted mum who was playing a game on her ‘phone, only hears the words “go out” and “coffee” and asks why they should pay for coffee when they have an expensive coffee machine at home. Unfortunately, the mum is unable to hear what her young person is asking for and loses out on some important time with her.               

Developing listening skills to better connect with and learn from our young people could be perceived as a priceless gift.  But listening can sometimes be uncomfortable in that we may learn something that challenges our beliefs and values or makes us question our assumptions about the world.

Letting go of parental expectations

We have established the difference between hearing, and listening to, our young people. But as loving parents/carers, how much of a parental filter is there when we try to listen? How do we separate our agenda from theirs, not assuming that we “know best.”  Yes, we guide our young people but by not fully listening are we blind to what they actually need/want? 

Our role as parents/carers is seen as to guide, support and advise. However, often this is unwittingly informed by our own similar experiences at that age, so there is the chance that the parent/carer will end up over-identifying with their young person and instead of supporting them in solving the problem, we might jump in first to resolve it. Sometimes referred to as enmeshed parenting, this can take away the opportunity to develop a voice and those all-important decision-making skills. 

The idea of letting go and supporting them in working out their own solutions to difficulties may be frightening, leaving us with a sense of grief about their impending independence; departure and need for their parent/carer as before.      

So, what might be helpful? Could uninterrupted listening, without judgement, comment or solutions be a place to start? Also helpful is not taking things personally, lowering our defences and recognising it may not be us they are angry with - all behaviour is communication. “Guilt-tripping” our young person into doing what we want to meet our expectations/needs is unhelpful!  

The quotation below from psychologist Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child-The Search for the True Self” (1982) sums this up well. 

“Many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations. This feeling is stronger than any intellectual insight they might have, that it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy his parents’ needs. No argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life’s earliest periods, and from that they derive their intensity and obduracy”

It is a given that a child’s survival is wholly dependent on their caregiver and subsequently they adopt the role thrust upon them in order to be accepted and loved, conditionally at least. Any resistance to this is usually viewed as “bad”, and the child gets punished, actively (yelling or worse) or passively (such as the “silent treatment” or other types of rejection).  This is often played out completely subconsciously.

Consequently, the child may grow up believing that they are a failure, a disappointment, and “bad” and struggle with toxic guilt and shame. This can also lead to confusion about who they really are, since they have been unwittingly conditioned to “self-erase” and be whatever they are expected to be. These early expectations/roles set by our caregivers can be tough to relinquish and it can take months or even years of therapy to identify them and extricate themselves. 

When a teen says you don't understand them

But how do we best respond to our young person if they say that we don't care about their views and opinions?  We do try to give them our full attention when they talk to us but complain that we're not listening. We don't believe that their accusations are fair, but we also want them to know that their concerns are important. Before attempting to convince our young person that we’re listening, we need to ensure that we really are.  As alluded to earlier, it is easy for parents/carers to assume that they’re listening to their young person, when in fact our minds are busy making assumptions, or planning how they are going to reply.

We need to wait to hear the full story before jumping to conclusions, stay focused, looking at facts, and asking questions rather than give our opinion (unless requested!) This requires time and energy. Remember, sometimes our adolescents can be as demanding as toddlers, though in different ways. As we tackle this, it is worth remembering what listening is and what it is not.

The bottom line

Fundamentally, we are our children’s parents/carers until we die so it’s important to see our role to “take the high road” - because we are essentially the ones who first model healthy relationships.  None of us is perfect, but we can always ask ourselves if our relationship with our young person is as good as it can be. If not, then consider what we can do to improve it.

It is also important to remain mindful that the period of adolescence is one of intense emotional, intellectual and physical growth, and so the confusion and upheaval for many families might be seen as normal.

Despite some adults' negative perceptions about adolescents, they can be thoughtful, enthusiastic and idealistic with a clear sense of fairness and justice. Whilst it can be a period of conflict between parent/carer and child, the adolescent years are also a time to support our young person into growing into the individual they will become - actively listening to them may help us learn about them.

This blog was written by Jennifer Pitt, an accredited counsellor/psychotherapist with 18 years’ experience of working with adolescents and, at times with their parents too! She has 2 adult children too.

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